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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Carleton chapter.

*Warning: some minor spoilers ahead*

Another Reese’s Book Club Pick done, another to discuss. Although this was an older pick of the club, I had yet to read it, and so this summer, with some of my spare time away from classes, I decided to dive deep into this seemingly interesting, mysterious novel! Though it wasn’t as flashy or exciting as I thought it to be, I do think it was worth the read. 

Follow along below to learn more about the storyline, characters, and insights of Flynn Berry’s novel to learn whether it should be added to your TBR.

Plot Summary

Northern Spy comprises the story of two sisters who have gotten themselves wrapped up in the IRA. A riveting mystery about sisterhood, motherhood, and politics, this novel dives deep into how relationships are more complicated beyond the surface, even familial ones. Although the IRA may have gone underground after Good Friday, this novel makes it clear that Northern Ireland still has many political heads butting with emotion, conflict, and seemingly endless violence. 

Tessa, our heroine of the novel, is a reporter for the Belfast bureau of the BBC, where she produces important interviews with politicians, urging an end to the IRA violence. A divorced mother of one six-month-old baby, she is extremely close to her family, especially her sister, Marian. Or so she thought. 

One evening while producing a show, the reporter brings up a new story: a gas station robbery committed by none other than Marian. 

After the devastating news that her sister must be an operative of the IRA, Tessa must grapple with the fact that her sister is not who she thought she was. In fact, she’s going against Tessa’s dream of a peaceful Ireland for her son to grow up in, instead, she’s adding to the conflict. 

Through twists and turns, Tessa learns that her sister is, in actuality, an informer for the MI-5 rather than an agent, turning on the friends she had made in the IRA to try and help bring peace talks between the supposed terrorists and the government. Against her best judgement, Tessa joins her sister as an IRA “operative” informing MI-5. But is Marian telling the truth? Is she really an informer to MI-5, or is she using the secret service to help the IRA? 

You’ll have to read the book to find out! 

Compelling Characters

Tessa

Tessa is by far the best-written character in the novel. It’s clear that Berry is either a woman who loves motherhood or has studied the extent of the love a mother can have for their child. A big theme in the book is Tessa grappling with whether she should inform the MI-5 to help protect her sister and encourage peace talks, or whether she should take her son and leave Ireland altogether. 

Between her day job as a reporter and informing, Tessa struggles to make time for the son she loves with her entire soul and heart. Berry beautifully demonstrates the little things a mother appreciates about her children. The cuddling before bed, the deciphering of twinkling eyes and verbal queues. I definitely think Tessa was a compelling woman who had a great personality and demonstrated an internal battle maybe every mother has to make at some point or another. 

Marian

Marian, on the other hand? Not a fan. Another theme in the book seemed to be sisterly love, and while I do know that I would do everything for my brother – I can’t imagine forgiving or even condoning the actions of a person I thought was so open and close to me. To help the IRA rob, hurt, and at times kill innocent people? I would have cut communication off entirely with her if only to keep the rest of my family out of trouble. 

Marian herself seems to flip-flop between wanting to help make peace talks a reality and wanting to hang out with the friends she has made in her IRA group. She continually asks her sister for favours, to help her, to understand her, but to what end? Marian doesn’t seem really give a care for the feelings or well-being of the family she was supposedly so close to. Perhaps that was the intended effect Berry wanted to convey in the novel, however, all in all – I was disappointed in the character. 

Critique

This novel was definitely a quick read, and one that gave a great insight into the trials and tribulations of the people of Ireland, and a new outlook on balancing motherhood with other priorities. I enjoyed the crisp detail Berry gave; whether it was the scenery of the cold beaches in Ireland or the IRA cabins in the middle of fields, I could instantly picture anything within. 

I also loved the internal battle that Tessa had between informing and parenting. It was an interesting outlook and perhaps a metaphor for the things mothers have to decide upon when having and caring for a child alongside the rest of their personal lives. I’ve found themes like these to be repetitive and a bit boring in some novels, but Berry’s portrayal of parenting and motherhood was elating. 

I, however, did not like Marian’s weakness, the pure selfishness she demonstrated. She asked too much of her family, gave too little reassurance, and tried justifying her actions with pretty poor excuses. I thought there had to be something deeper with Marian, that there was something we would learn to make her mistakes worth it. But as a reader, I was left disappointed. 

The overall novel is spun to be a thriller of sorts, and I must say, other than one chapter – it was anything but. A definite mystery? A great work of fiction? A wonderfully written novel? Yes, yes, and yes. A thriller that has you on the edge of your seat? Absolutely not. Thrillers are one of my favourite genres, but the book’s marketing led to some disappointment throughout. The ending definitely gave the punch we were all waiting for, but it didn’t deserve the thriller hype. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Though this was a fantastically written book and had thoughtful themes throughout, it was a dash boring, long, and underwhelming. I felt that its promise of thrilling events left me hungry for more than the book could actually offer. Furthermore, Marian’s character was frustrating, disappointing, and overall lacking in importance. The title was also misleading. Though the two sisters technically call themselves spies, the actual spy work included was not what I had in mind. Therefore, though, it was a bit underwhelming. If you enjoy mysteries, relationships, and great writing – this is the book for you. 

Rachel Fiset

Carleton '23

Rachel is a Journalism and Political Science combined honours student. She loves to write, read, and learn any way she can! Rachel enjoys keeping busy, and along with HerCampus is involved with The Charlatan, CKCU 93.1 FM, Book Ravens, and the Campus Activity Board.