The English Spy

Reading Group Guide – The English Spy

Discussion Questions

1. Gabriel Allon and his wife, Chiara, are a mere month away from the birth of their twins. How might such a circumstance affect Gabriel as he works another dangerous mission?

2. Reminded that he is lucky to have Chiara, that there “aren’t many women who would let their husbands to go to war against the Kremlin in the final weeks of a pregnancy,” Gabriel replies: “It’s part of the deal.” What is the complex and supportive understanding that Gabriel and Chiara share?

3. In some books, Gabriel is restoring a painting; in others, he is a restoring a person. What is the role of restoration in The English Spy?

4. Over the course of the series, how has Gabriel changed? How is he restoring himself in The English Spy?

5. Christopher Keller, a former top member of the SAS’s Regiment turned rogue professional assassin, is now being recruited to return home to serve as a spy for Britain’s MI6. What skills make him a viable spy? What behaviors or philosophies will he have to change to make the move from assassin to spy?

5. Gabriel sees Keller as his “last restoration” project. Why is it so important to Gabriel that Keller be restored to his family?

6. Keller is motivated by the murder of Elizabeth Conlin, a woman he once fell in love with when he was working undercover in Northern Ireland. How does this detail increase the complexity of Keller’s severe character?

7. For both Gabriel and Keller, tracking down Eamon Quinn is personal, and “when it’s personal, it tends to get messy.” What does this mean? How does such personal motivation empower their mission? How does it hinder it?

8. The epigraph from Mary, Queen of Scots (“No more tears now; I will think upon revenge”) suggests that much of the motivation in the novel is revenge. Yet Gabriel says to Keller that revenge “never makes you feel better.” What are the advantages of revenge? What are its liabilities? Why might achieving revenge fail to transform suffering?

9. How is being motivated by revenge different from being motivated by a desire for justice?

10. How does Madeline Hart’s reappearance from The English Girl add to the complex storyline?

11. What are the relevant similarities and differences between Madeline and Katerina Akulova. Why did each woman want to be like the other when they were young? What makes Madeline “good” according to Katerina?

12. Do the tragic, politically co-opted childhoods of Madeline and Katerina generate sympathy despite their deceitful and injurious actions? What might be the value of trying to understand, or even to empathize with, harmful people? How does Katerina’s final act of saving Madeline and Gabriel before her own death alter any previous conceptions about her?

13. Gabriel shows an empathic ability when he admits to thinking of some terrorists as potential scientists or poets gone terribly wrong. What complex web of forces damages and profoundly misdirects such valuable intellectual and creative abilities?

14. What does the complicated history of the United Kingdom’s engagement with the IRA in Northern Ireland bring to the novel? What can be made of the suggested parallel drawn between this conflict and the conflicts in the contemporary Middle East?

15. How does the ominous presence of an unscrupulous contemporary Russia affect the complex political landscape of the novel?

15. Samantha Cooke, the Telegraph’s chief Whitehall correspondent, writes and publishes misleading falsehoods for the benefit of the mission. Is this ethical? What might justify violating such public trust? What might be the differences, suggested by Gabriel, between “lies” and “deception”?

16. Examine the psychological complexity created by the simultaneous presence of Gabriel’s faked death and the expectation of the birth of his twins.

17. Consider the varied presence of borders in the novel: as a literal, geographic line of division; as a symbolic line of cultural identity; as a metaphorical mark of identity transition for Gabriel, from spy to chief and father, and for Keller, from rogue assassin to MI6 spy.

18. Gabriel plans Chiara’s pending trip to the hospital for the birth of the twins with the detail and backups of a mission, and when viewing a sonogram of the fully developed twins, his “heart beat[s] with operational swiftness.” What might be made of this suggested comparison between his life as a spy and the challenges of parenting?

19. In a small, emotionally charged way, Gabriel returns to painting by transforming a wall of the twins’ nursery with “Titianesque clouds” and an angelic homage to his first son, Daniel. What might this suggest about the nature of his return home?

20. Do you think Gabriel will retire to the position of chief of the Office? Graham Seymour’s experience suggests that “with power … there often comes a feeling of helplessness.” How might this be so? How could this create difficulty for Gabriel after a brilliant, autonomous, and effective career in the field?

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