Evelyn Varley spends her life blending in. From an only child fleeing modest roots to fit in as a scholarship student at a prestigious boarding school, to overworked young woman holding her tongue in front of friends too wealthy to trouble themselves with a job, to MI5 agent “Chameleon” tasked with infiltrating a Nazi sympathiser group on the eve of Churchill’s ascendency. Duplicity is what she knows best. But can she betray one of the few people she has ever stood out to?
Starford’s characters are richly developed: Evelyn, especially, is skilfully fleshed out by the things she doesn’t say. Her father has a heartbreaking and scene-stealing effect, seen when he walks her to the train station for a return journey to London, following a strained family holiday, and politely pleads for her to phone home more. His words are an echo of a similarly tinged-with-sadness interaction earlier in the novel, when he drops her off at school and urges “be yourself and you’ll get on just fine”. Starford walks the tightrope well in keeping characters in a well-explored moment in history free from cliché. The strongest example of this is Evelyn’s longest friend Sally Wesley, who has the warning signs of being the smart protagonist’s twit bestie but instead emerges as a force of warmth and prescience. For all Evelyn is a shapeshifter able to read people’s secrets, Sally has the uncomplicated ability to recognise some people don’t contain multitudes: their darker instincts are plainly visible to those who choose to see them.
Starford does tremendous work building up the suspense of Evelyn’s foreshadowed betrayal: perhaps a little too well as by the time it comes, in a flurry of final pages, there is a slightly deflated feeling of “is that it?” Yet the beauty of the writing exceeds its rushed conclusion.