Berta Isla by Javier Marías review – till espionage us do part

A couple’s marriage is threatened by the husband’s work for the secret service in a thought-provoking spin on the spy thriller

After Michael Ondaatje’s Booker-longlisted Warlight and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, Javier Marías’s new book is the latest literary novel to take an unexpected approach to the espionage-thriller formula, mixing marital intrigue with a history lesson of late 20th-century conflict.

High-school sweethearts Berta – magnetically attractive – and half-English Tomás part ways for university in the 1960s, she staying in Madrid and he going to Oxford, where it’s intimated that as a gifted linguist and mimic he might prove handy to the secret services. No sooner does he decline than he’s hauled in by police, after a woman he’s been sleeping with is found strangled hours after their last meeting. Tomás is the prime suspect, unless, that is, he happens to have changed his mind about spying for his adopted ...