New York City, 1962. Vera Kelly is struggling to make rent and blend into the underground gay scene in Greenwich Village. She’s working night shifts at a radio station when her quick wits, sharp tongue, and technical skills get her noticed by a recruiter for the CIA.
Next thing she knows she’s in Argentina, tasked with wiretapping a congressman and infiltrating a group of student activists in Buenos Aires. As Vera becomes more and more enmeshed with the young radicals, the fragile local government begins to split at the seams. When a betrayal leaves her stranded in the wake of a coup, Vera learns war makes for strange and unexpected bedfellows, and she’s forced
to take extreme measures to save herself.
I think my review should be titled ‘Vera Kelly I Love You’!
Who Is Vera Kelly by Rosalie Knecht is a magnificent depiction of a feisty, flawed and brave heroine during a time of civil; war and repression. Best of all she is a spy! Full of wit, a wealth of original characters. it eschews the male dominated spy novels of John Le Carre and delivers a female led tale. To add spice and variety Rosalie Knecht combines the spy thriller, with a strong historical background, a lesbian heroine with a natural talent for espionage, making the narrative original, witty and often emotional.
It is sad to say that a lesbian character is still an original and rare find in well written in 2021. A quite depressing thought in want is a more enlightened era, so finding Vera Kelly and reading about her adventures was an absolute joy! The writer by making her complex, avoids all the clichés that tend to dominate this genre, she is brave and resourceful, but also vulnerable and troubled. She also pushes the boundaries of the genre by revealing how the past shapes the future by alternating chapters of danger laden adventures in Buenos Aires, with ones that take us on a journey into Vera’s past, her troubled childhood and coming out. Building the character up in stages, she feels both real and fractured, so much so, you can imagine with little effort, Vera walking the streets in the real world! We get to know her in a way that feels intuitive, she doesn’t land in our reading imagination fully formed, but we slowly begin to understand why she is a loner, why she has landed herself in Buenos Aires as a spy for the CIA. By not telling the story in a liner fashion it all feels more subversive and reflects the uncertainty Vera’s life is caught in, the uneasy world she is having to navigate.
Vera is gay, but this is not what defines her, it is simply who she is and I will say this again, she is magnificent! She strides through a complex and yet easy to read story and importantly, is never overshadowed by events. Just as important is that her sexuality and back story never distract the reader from the story itself, they combine together in a way that creates emotional depth and nuance in a genre, not known for character led drama. I loved how the story weaves in an out of the present and the past, how we are one minute in the streets of Buenos Aires, then the suburbs of America. The repression of the authorities against it’s own people might seem at first something that only affects the people caught up the tumultuous events of a coup, but Rosalie Knectht draws parallels with the oppression felt by LGBT+ people in New York City., showing that this novel can be read on so many levels. The stories subtext making it not just a spy drama as well as a tale of adventure, but a story that allows us to see the connections between two seemingly different worlds.
Above all, it’s a fun, entertaining and witty tale that opens it’s arms wide to all readers and says come in and meet Vera Kelly. Getting to know her is fun and there is never a dull moment. Rosalie Knecht has delivered the drama I feel like I have been waiting for, for years. Remarkably she does so by not writing a niche narrative that will be squirrelled away on a shelf labelled LGBT + fiction, but will sit proudly on the amassed ranks of tables we walk past in the windows of Waterstones.
I loved it so much, I already have the second novel featuring Vera on pre-order!
About the author
Rosalie Knecht is the author of Who Is Vera Kelly?, Vera Kelly Is Not A Mystery and Relief Map. She is also the translator of César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind (New Directions). She lives in New Jersey.