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Book Review: The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby

Charlotte Philby found the inspiration behind her debut novel in a question that arose from her grandfather’s notorious defection to Russia in 1963: what kind of person walks out on their family?

On the surface, Anna Witherall personifies everything the aspirational magazine she works for represents. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has a beautiful home and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create.

As Anna finds herself drawn into the dark and highly controlled world of secret intelligence, she is forced to question her family’s safety, and her own. Only one thing is certain: in order to protect her children, she must leave them, forever. 

And someone is watching. Someone she thought she could trust. Someone who is determined to make them all pay.

Charlotte Philby recruits a young woman as her spy in The Most Difficult Thing, exploring the relationships she has, how the lines blur between what is real and what might be role-play, or even manipulative behaviour, on someone else’s part. When that woman becomes a mother, she examines whether maternal instincts automatically kick in, especially where childbirth and the postpartum period aren’t easy. She also considers the decision to break ties and whether it’s any more difficult for a mother to leave her children than it is for a father to walk out on his family.

The actual business interests that form the subject of the espionage were a little sketchy and confusing at times but this didn’t bother me too much because I found them to be of secondary interest to the web of relationships around Anna, who is at the heart of the novel.

This is where The Most Difficult Thing works particularly well and comes into its own. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle all the relationships and work out who was playing it straight, who was not to be trusted or potentially spying on someone else or possibly even playing a double game, who might be paranoid or controlling, or who might simply be concerned for the children of the house and/or someone else’s welfare.

It’s difficult to work out if or how far Anna goes native, to what extent she makes conscious decisions affecting her life, and how much she remembers she has been recruited for a specific purpose. It’s also hard to gauge how much others suspect or know what she’s doing, who for and why. It was satisfying to see how it all unravels by the end. The Most Difficult Thing is an edgy family drama with its tangle of relationships unspooling in a clammy climate of deception and mistrust.

The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback, with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more information on Charlotte Philby and her work, visit her Author Website or you can find her on Twitter.  

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

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