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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Tomás Nevinson

Javier Marías

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To purchase Tomás Nevinson

Title: Tomás Nevinson
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 641 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Tomás Nevinson - US
Tomás Nevinson - US (Spanish)
Tomás Nevinson - UK
Tomás Nevinson - Canada
Tomás Nevinson - France
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Tomás Nevinson - Italia
Tomás Nevinson - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: Tomás Nevinson
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

A- : thoroughly enjoyable; very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 25/5/2023 .
Financial Times . 16/3/2023 Alex Preston
The Guardian . 16/3/2023 L.Hughes-Hallett
Literary Review . 3/2023 James Womack
London Rev. of Books . 4/5/2023 Michael Wood
New Statesman . 3/4/2023 Jeremy Cliffe
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/3/2023 Benjamin Markovits
The Observer . 19/3/2023 Anthony Cummins
El País . 18/12/2020 Gregorio Belinchón
The Spectator . 1/4/2023 Boyd Tonkin
Sunday Times . 26/3/2023 Chris Power
The Telegraph A- 18/.3/2023 Jake Kerridge
TLS . 31/3/2023 Miranda France

  Review Consensus:

  Very positive

  From the Reviews:
  • "Those who prefer their espionage thrillers lean and taut may be put off by this hulking tome. But like the stories in Marías’s bravura trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, Tomás Nevinson is a different kind of spy novel. It unfolds in meandering yet mesmerising sentences. Some describe scenes, others contribute to free-flowing monologues or digressive meditations. The author’s other trademark tropes, from literary allusions to historical references and philosophical debates, all feature. Occasionally the narrative is weighed down by ponderous musings on topics such as hatred, justice and killing for the greater good. But it is never long before readers are again enthralled by Marías’s high-stakes plot, his protagonist’s tangled web of deceit and the sharp scrutiny of guilt, doubt, betrayal and memory." - The Economist

  • "(T)he plot of a novel by Javier Marías is never quite the point -- what you get is philosophising, smart conversation and cerebral game-playing. There’s always a profound interest in the human condition in Marías, the sense of an author who uses the tools of postmodernism to ask deep questions about the way we engage with each other and perceive ourselves. (...) Tomás Nevinson is brilliant on the daily vexations of the spy’s life, the boredom, the way the career destroys relationships, eating away at the spy’s sense of self." - Alex Preston, Financial Times

  • "It’s a straightforward setup, with fairytale echoes (the princess who must choose between three suitors, and woe betide her if she makes the mistake of picking the obvious candidate). But Marías, having used it as a scaffolding to hang his thoughts on, jettisons it. The backstory is not revealed. The climactic moment is a non-event. In Marías-world, morality is ambiguous and conclusions elusive. (...) Marías is not mirroring reality. He is weaving a many-layered meditation on mortality and memory and free will and its opposite. His subsidiary characters are puppets. The three female suspects are as unreadable to us as they are to Nevinson. The men with whom they are linked are not so much people as props’n’costumes (...) This novel leaves its plotlines dangling, not bothering to answer simple questions about who did what to whom, because its author is more concerned with larger, more suggestive mysteries." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Guardian

  • "Marías became a master of stasis, able to keep a reader gripped through his sinuous, discursive style, even when not a great deal is happening onstage. (...) Of course, one doesn’t really read Marías for the plot. What keeps the pages turning is his ‘familiar voice’, and the rather woozy way in which his characters seem to be holding themselves together through sheer effort of will. (...) I am a big fan of this kind of prose, which moves beyond the discursive into the wilder shores of mimesis, where the barrier between thought and its expression is at its most permeable. (...) (I)t is part of the glory and loveliness of Marías’s writing that it flirts with ridiculousness, is open to it." - James Womack, Literary Review

  • "Comparisons to Proust and Henry James come up a lot when critics discuss Marías, but we could also see his style, his performance, as something akin to a too-late Balzac, aided perhaps by a disciple of the Ancient Mariner. The prose has the extraordinary effect of making us simultaneously wonder why we’re still reading this garrulous stuff and how we could possibly stop. (...) One thing that isn’t a metaphor in this book is espionage." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "Marías (1951-2022) long made use of the language of counterintelligence, even when he wasn’t writing about spies. In his work, ordinary relationships, between parents and children, between friends, between lovers, depend on the kind of coded interactions you might find in a John le Carré novel, where part of what interests two people in each other is their professional ability to keep secrets. (...) This novel makes frequent sly references to some of the writers who have meant something to him: Berta teaches a class on Henry James; Tupra and Nevinson swap quotes from “Macbeth.” But the style, rendered in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, is always recognizably Marías’s: both mannered and informal, and somehow both breathless and endlessly self-revising." - Benjamin Markovits, The New York Times Book Review

  • "An espionage thriller in sinuous slow motion (.....) Central to all Marías’s effects is his style. This is an interior novel, less about deeds than the guilty turmoil of thought, portrayed in long fluid sentences, which come courtesy once more of his longtime translator Margaret Jull Costa (.....) Seductively conversational and glinting with slantwise humour (“even the occasional town”), as well as contradictory and grandiose, the torrent of reflection sweeps away the thought that even a closely printed novel of more than 600 pages might start taking care of itself when the writer gets into this kind of groove." - Anthony Cummins, The Observer

  • "Even over its 600-plus pages, however, Tomás Nevinson rolls forward with a satisfying momentum. Sink into the tidal flow of Tomás’s monologue, and it tugs you along fast. The suspense stems not only from his quest to uncover a butcher of innocents, but from the creeping, then cascading, nature of his trains of thought" - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "Nobody who picks up the latest (and last) of his novels is likely to mistake it for a work by, say, Ian Fleming. (...) The remainder of the book, which is set in 1997, is less intense but still compelling, although the plot is nonsensical. (...) What really makes his novels enthralling, however, is the irresistible ruminative, allusive narrative voice (assigned here to Nevinson: a far more convincing match for the Marías voice than his wife Berta Isla, who narrated the previous book). (...) Grappling with the bucking-bronco sentences of a new Marías book is always an exhilarating pleasure (bouquets to his skilful long-serving translator Margaret Jull Costa for corralling them) and one I’ll miss dreadfully." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

  • "The premiss is absurd, of course (.....) With Marías, it doesn’t help to get too hung up on credibility. His novels are games in which a universal vocabulary of baddies, portents and tropes allows him subtly, and over hundreds of pages, to investigate more complex ideas. Distracted by a boss-eyed woman in tweed, or a man in a gabardine with a sinister scar, we don’t notice Marías sneaking his pawn through our defences. He is an illusionist of the written word. (...) In Tomás Nevinson the circumlocutions and repetitions more naturally create a kind of melody against which the larger themes are played. (...) Marías can be very funny, despite his weighty themes, especially in his descriptions of the inhabitants of Ruán. Among the different tones in this novel I also detected a querulousness, a yearning for the twentieth century, before the tyranny of mobile phones and the internet, when it was easier to smoke anywhere you liked and women didn’t expect to be called “Ms”." - Miranda France, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The name Tomás Nevinson is familiar to readers from Javier Marías' previous novel, Berta Isla, as Nevinson, a Spaniard who had been enlisted as a spy by the British. is Berta's husband. In Tomás Nevinson he recounts, from some two decades on, events set mainly 1997, when, after having retired -- "or 'burned out' as people say of someone who was once useful and no longer is" -- from spying and settled back into a low-key life in Madrid, he is suddenly pulled back into action by his longtime spymaster, Bertie Tupra (familiar also from Marías' Your Face Tomorrow-trilogy).
       The novel begins promising high stakes, its opening line:

     I was brought up the old-fashioned way, and could never have dreamed that I would one day be ordered to kill a woman.
       That is what the mission he is enlisted for ultimately boils down to -- though it's a bit more complicated than that. The killing is: "of the punishment or revenge variety", the person he is charged with eliminating a woman named Magdalena Orúe O'Dea, half Northern Irish, half Spanish, and completely bilingual. Tupra tells Nevinson that she was involved in the 1987 Hipercor bombing by the Basque terrorist group, ETA, that left twenty-one dead and forty-five injured (as happened in real life). It's unclear what actually she did -- as Nevinson has to admit: "I've never found out quite what her role in that had been" -- and she doesn't seem to have done anything at all in the ten years since then, but Tupra is determined: she has to be eliminated. The mission isn't quite official, and there's a Spanish connection that's also outside the usual operating procedure, but it's something Tupra insists has to get done.
       The problem is, they don't know exactly who the woman, long living underground under an assumed name, now is. They've narrowed it down to three candidates, all living in the provincial city that Nevinson calls, "for convenience's sake", 'Ruán', and Nevinson is to go there and determine which of these is actually the terrorist-in-hiding. (Nevinson himself had gone to ground for quite a few years in England -- long enough to start a separate family, complete with daughter -- that he had then abandoned overnight and completely in returning to Spain.)
       Nevinson is lured back into his old life rather easily. He is given an identity to assume -- Miguel Centurión -- and a cover-job as English teacher. The three women are Inés Marzán, Celia Bayo, María Viana -- and, conveniently, the relevant Spanish authorities have managed to install cameras and microphones in the homes of the latter two, albeit only one room in each; Centurión spends much of his time going through the not very revealing recordings. Inés does live right across the river from him, so he can spy on her with binoculars -- but he doesn't have the benefit of hearing what goes on there.
       Inés is single and owns and runs a restaurant, and so Centurión can insinuate himself into her life rather easily, and they do start a casual relationship. Celia works at the same school as Centurión, so he can strike up a collegial acquaintance; María proves harder to get closer to, but eventually Centurión sets himself up as English tutor to her two young children, putting him in some proximity to her as well.
       Tupra is in a rush, but Nevinson-as-Centurión is patient; he knows:
that people always talk in the end, that they cannot bear to remain silent for ever and not tell other people's stories or their own, cannot resist boasting a little or intriguing their listeners or provoking their compassion, horror or admiration, inspiring pity or terror, be it future or retrospective. Yes, people talk too much and without meaning to, even when they have resolved not to talk.
       So too Nevinson -- careful enough on the job, in 1997, but garrulous on the page two decades later, laying it all out ..... He also writes mostly in the first person, but shifts occasionally and speaks of Centurión and his activities in the third person, a subtle distancing from his temporary alter ego and this role he is playing. Amusingly, too, late on he claims: "I've never been very interested in knowing myself" -- a useful trait in someone who has had to repeatedly convincingly pretend to be someone he is not, but hardly very convincing here, in this testament of self-analysis and reflection.
       Things take on greater urgency when events happen leading to: "a time when the whole country was in a state of uproar" -- the (again, real-life) abduction and murder of Miguel Ángel Blanco by ETA. (Tying the novel in to historical events serves another purpose for Marías, as he has Nevinson note, in the present-day (some twenty years later) with some outrage how: "assassins also have the ability to minimize or erase their crimes", and he makes sure these events aren't forgotten (as, he notes, they seem to have been by younger Basques by that time).)
       Worried that she has or will get back in on the terrorist action, Tupra pressures Nevinson to finally make a determination: which of the women is Molly O'Dea -- and he applies some pressure by raising the stakes. As Nevinson puts it: "he's presenting me with an alternative that really is bad, very bad". No kidding.
       Well, well into the novel -- page 532 ... -- Nevinson allows: "It seemed that the action, the act, the deed was getting closer". It's taken quite the while: Tomás Nevinson is as drawn-out of a tale as one can imagine. That's appropriate for a suspense novel, from the will he/won't he tension that is introduced in the opening line, but Marías really takes his time. There's remarkable little action in Tomás Nevinson -- certainly very little that advances the story. Nevinson-as-Centurión bides his time, and bids the reader to bide with him, the narrative full of lengthy digressions, circling around this subject matter and situation. It all makes for some of the suspense one expects in a spy novel, but the novel's true hold is of another sort. And hold it does -- Tomás Nevinson is an almost entrancing read, as Marías leads the reader on in his patient, even-keeled way.
       Marías does build the story up some around the basic (im)moral question, of whether it is acceptable to kill someone to prevent them from possibly doing something in the future. It is not so much her past deeds that the mystery-woman is to be held accountable for -- though the question of punishment long after the fact is also one Nevinson mulls over repeatedly -- but rather the potential still within her. Tupra is so insistent that Magdalena Orúe O'Dea be eliminated because he is so certain that she will emerge again to do more dirty work, even if she has lived a quiet and innocuous life for the past ten years; the risk that she will is too great for him, justifying the taking of her life. The example Nevinson returns to repeatedly is that of Hitler: if one had had the opportunity to kill him before he had committed his most heinous deeds -- before he was truly guilty of anything -- would or should one have ?
       Nevinson struggles with the issue -- not least, because he is no innocent himself, having killed before. Beyond that, there's his own life-path to consider: Tupra is certain that: " People like her never change", but Nevinson wants to believe otherwise, because he wants to believe that he, too, can and has changed. And, of course, eventually here he is put to the (ultimate) test on the question.
       With its rather preposterous premise -- so much so, that Nevinson keeps repeating how this is pretty much a rogue mission, Tupra keeping his superiors out of the loop, as do the Spaniards he is working with --, Tomás Nevinson feels a bit forced as thought-experiment, of the morality (and desirability) of killing someone who, one has reason to believe, may cause great harm. But beyond that it's lovely piece of work, a reading-pleasure even at its great length and unlikely situations.
       Marías captures Nevinson as a spy who wonders about the life he lived and all that he has given up for it particularly well -- down to his understanding that:
     There was, though, another motive behind my decision to return to active service, to accept this mission: the only way not to question the usefulness of what you have done in the past is to keep doing the same thing; the only justification for a murky, muddy existence is to continue to muddy it; the only justification for a long-suffering life is to perpetuate that suffering, to tend it and nourish it and complain about it,, just as a life of crime is only sustainable if you persevere as a criminal, if villains persist in their villainy and do harm right left and centre, first to some and then to others until no one is left untouched.
       It's this attitude, of course, that leads Nevinson to accept that Tupra might be on to something, that the leopard can't change her spots, and that thus even the most extreme step is justifiable.
       It all makes for a very good novel -- a solid if a bit far-fetched spy/suspense tale that is borne along above all else by Marías' exceptional writing (and his longtime translator Margaret Jull Costa's Englishing of it). A very good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 June 2023

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Tomás Nevinson: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Spanish literature under review

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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© 2023 the complete review

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