Minnie Gray is an ordinary young woman.
She is also a spy for the British government.
It all began in the summer of 1928…
Minnie is supposed to find a nice man, get married and have children. The problem is it doesn’t appeal to her at all. She is working as a secretary, but longs to make a difference.
Then, one day, she gets her chance. She is recruited by the British government as a spy. Under strict instructions not to tell anyone, not even her family, she moves to London and begins her mission – to infiltrate the Communist movement.
She soon gains the trust of important leaders. But as she grows more and more entangled in the workings of the movement, her job becomes increasingly dangerous. Leading a double life is starting to take its toll on her relationships and, feeling more isolated than ever, she starts to wonder how this is all going to end. The Russians are notorious for ruthlessly disposing of people given the slightest suspicion.
What if they find out?
I became very fond of Minnie Gray as I started to read this interesting new novel by Rachel Hore. Based on the true story of Olga Gray, a young woman recruited by Maxwell Knight in the 1930s, to infiltrate The Friends of the Soviet Union, the author has cleverly blended fact and fiction to create an intriguing and interesting novel. I loved how Minnie felt a little like a square peg in a round hole – even at home in Edgbaston with her mother (where she feels most like she belongs) she’s restless and somehow a little different to the others. At a garden party, she gravitates towards a woman playing croquet; a woman of very individual and modern style. It’s as if she recognises a woman like this wouldn’t be afraid of shaking things up. They talk about the possibility of Minnie making a move to London, that maybe she could be recommended as someone to work for the government. Minnie is so excited, this might just be that direction and purpose in life she’s been looking for. She wants something for herself, not the stereotypical marriage to a nice middle class man to produce 2.4 children, that her mother expects. She’s fed up of being at parties, dangled before an ever dwindling pool of eligible gentlemen. Her excitement, turns to hope as she waits for a phone call and watches the letterbox, but nothing comes. It’s only when she’s lost hope that a call comes for her to interview and she meets her ‘handler’ Max.
I loved the eccentric ‘Britishness’ of the people Minnie meets in her new life. Most interesting is Max, who has a flat like a menagerie, full of various animals including a parrot. She goes to work at the communist organisation as someone interested in helping others, rather than the cause itself. In order to supplement her income, she takes another niche job, typing for a distressed gentlewomen’s charity. Here she makes friends with another typist and starts to have something like a social life. Minnie is thriving out there on her own, but we are privy to her inner thoughts. She’s plagued with self- doubt – ‘is she doing this right?’ It often seems to her that she’s achieving very little, not important enough within the party to make a difference or furnish Max with anything useful. However, espionage is a long game, and the more insignificant and innocuous someone seems the better. Eventually she seems so much a part of the furniture that she is chosen to do something she never imagined. Having never been further than London, Minnie will be undertaking a mission to India as her career in espionage really takes off.
I could see how much work had gone into research, as well as mixing fact and fiction in such a way that it becomes authentic. The author embedded Minnie into the 1930s from her clothes, to societal norms and mentions of world events such as the rise of Nazism. In snippets of chat at the communist organisation I could hear ideas and concerns about the working class and keeping them on board with a left leading political party. This disenfranchised class would be easy pickings for Oswald Moseley’s fascist party in a couple of years time. This is a time of political turmoil across Europe, as the tensions started in the aftermath of WW1 begin to boil over. The author really emphasises the fear and trepidation of choosing a double life, especially as a woman. I loved Minnie’s determination to be different and do something important, despite often feeling lonely and scared. I felt the author balanced this well with her need for adventure, as well as the excitement and thrill that keeps her going as the work gets more and more dangerous. I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating book. Rachel Hore has created a wonderful heroine who I found inspiring and authentic, with just a hint of vulnerability that made her so sympathetic. I felt completely transported to the 1930s, due to the author’s knowledge of this time period and her deeply layered descriptions of Minnie’s world. I could close my eyes and picture every setting – Minnie’s home, Max’s flat full of animals, an overcrowded train in India and the wall of heat before the monsoon rain. This was an excellent read for anyone who likes their historical fiction and enjoys determined and original heroines whose courage takes them on amazing adventures.
Meet The Author
I came to writing quite late, after a career editing fiction at HarperCollins in London. My husband and I had moved out to Norwich with our three young sons and I’d had to give up my job and writing was something that I’d always wanted to try. I originally studied history, so it was wonderful finally to put my knowledge to good use and to write The Dream House, which is partly set in the 1920s in Suffolk and London.
Most of my novels are dual narrative, often called ‘time slip’, with a story in the present alternating with one set in the past. I love the freedom that they give me to escape into the past, but also the dramatic ways in which the stories interact. My characters are often trying to solve some mystery about the past and by doing so to resolve some difficulty or puzzle in their own lives.
The books often involve a lot of research and this takes me down all sorts of interesting paths. For The Glass Painter’s Daughter I took an evening class in working with coloured glass. My creations were not very amazing, but making them gave me insight into the processes so that my characters’ activities would feel authentic. For A Week in Paris I had to research Paris in World War II and the early 1960s through films and books and by visiting the city – that was a great deal of work for one novel. Last Letter Home involved me touring a lot of country houses with old walled kitchen gardens in search of atmosphere and to explore the different kinds of plants grown there.
Places often inspire my stories. The Memory Garden, my second novel, is set in one of my favourite places in the world – Lamorna Cove in Cornwall – which is accessed through a lovely hidden valley. A Place of Secrets is set in a remote part of North Norfolk near Holt, where past and present seem to meet. Southwold in Suffolk, a characterful old-fashioned seaside resort with a harbour and a lighthouse, has been a much loved destination for our family holidays and has made an appearance in fictional guise in several of my novels, including The Silent Tide and The Love Child. Until very recently I taught Publishing and Creative Writing part-time at the University of East Anglia, but I’ve just become a full-time writer.
I hope that you are able to find my books easily and enjoy them – I am always happy to hear from readers!
Visit Rachel at http://www.rachelhore.co.uk, or follow her on Twitter @rachelhore or Facebook