Book Review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

“The intelligence services have roles for women,” he said. “You understand electronics. You speak Spanish and French.”
“How do you know that?” He kept smiling at me, as if I had to ask a rhetorical question.
“You’ve been looking at my school records?” I said.
“My boss was concerned about the Maryland Youth Center,” he said. “But I pushed for you.”
“Where did you get my records?”
“The next theater of war is in Latin America,” he said. He said this in the way a person might say, “on Fridays the cafeteria serves fish.” A car in the street outside was failing to start. It coughed and whined. Dust motes floated in the air above his head.
“Cuba?” I said.
“Central America, South America, the Caribbean.”
“What are we talking about?” I said. “Surveillance.”
In the minutes following yet another fight with her mother, Vera Kelly makes a decision that changes the course of her life-giving her the opportunity to escape the things that weight her down and to finally explore who it is she wants to be. The story is told from two points: in the late 1960s, Vera is in Argentina serving as a surveillance tech for the CIA in the moments leading up to the impending government coup and then Vera as a younger women in New York hopping from job to job and beginning to understand what it means to be a lesbian in the late 1950s. It is through this unique timeline that we are able to see Vera as she is now as we slowly uncover what it took to get her there.
As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I was arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. When I started working for Gerry and made enough money to keep some in the bank, I knew that if Gerry found out I went with girls, I would be fired twice over-the CIA did not pay out to homosexuals, because they were too easy to compromise. For a long time already, I had been half a step from the edge of a cliff. That was how I lived. I did not look over.
Essentially, this is a tale of secrets, sleuthing and espionage in dual capacity: Vera working as an undercover CIA operative and the true Vera living under her guise of heterosexuality. Through her assignment we are able to see the fierce underbelly of a country on the brink of revolution during a contentious time in history. Vera is sent to a university town, posing as an exchange student from Canada, to infiltrate a group of students suspected of activity aligning with the Russian KGB initiative.
“Strength is what matters,” she said. “We haven’t had a strong leader in- a long time.” I wondered if she wanted to say since Perón.
“Does it matter more than policy?”
“Policies change, they come and go. I love Argentina, and I want it to be strong. That’s all.”
Perhaps Gerry had been right. Her interest in politics was limited; maybe I was wasting my time. But there was a vividness to her that seemed important.
However, through the course of this mission she struggles to manage her youth and naivete with her professional expectations and nearly exposes her deepest secrets, threatening her position within the CIA and her very safety. When the coup succeeds, Vera is hung out to dry—fending for herself in a strange country where she is completely alone at a time where suspicion and betrayal exist in excess. The remainder of the novel maintains a suspenseful baseline as our two story lines converge and we stand witness to Vera’s ingenuity and strength as she attempts escape from Argentina while also learning of her coming-of-age and the eventual recruitment by the CIA that culminate in her final moments in New York and the birth of the ‘new Vera’.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Tin House Books

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