Who Is Vera Kelly?: A Queer Heroine In A Traditional World

Vera Kelly is a bit of a revelation.

Who Is Vera Kelly?
Who Is Vera Kelly?

In the back of my copy of Who Is Vera Kelly? is one of those question sets designed to guide a reading group. One of the questions which caught my eye was ‘Lots of girls grew up reading Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew novels. Why do you think there are so few adult spy novels starring female spies?’.

It is a good question and the reason I was drawn to it is because the experience of reading Who Is Vera Kelly? was a very unusual one; firstly because there are so few female spies in adult novels, and because there are even fewer queer ones. In Who Is Vera Kelly?, Rosalie Knecht has created a world that manages to feel very familiar whilst also being fresh and exciting merely by who her main character is.

Who Is Vera Kelly? follows our eponymous hero on her first big mission in 1960s Beunos Aires, as she attempts to root out a KGB plot in the tumultuous Argentine political scene, all whilst posing as a Canadian student. Interspersed with these scenes are flashbacks to her life leading up to how she was recruited to the CIA, highlighting her poor relationship with her mother and the friendship with Joanne which seems to have been the main driver in many of the decisions Vera made along the way. It’s a relatively simple plot, not overly complicated as a lot of spy novels can be, but no less of a page turner because of it.

Where Knecht’s real strength lies though is creating the world of her novel. When I was younger, I was devoted to Graham Greene, and Who Is Vera Kelly? gave me a lot of the same vibes as reading his work. The sense of place is very strong, with sharp observations of Argentine life and the people who surround Vera. It is immersive writing in the very best way; not over descriptive, sketching in just enough details to paint a picture without being flowery. Knecht handles the world through Vera’s eyes as though she has been doing it for a long time.

And of course, what is really a bit of a revelation is that we are looking through Vera’s eyes at all. As the reading guide question says, there are not many novels like this with female protagonists, especially written in this way which seemingly deliberately invokes the tone of some of the very best spy novels of the past. The reason that this world feels familiar to me is because of the legacy of literature in which Who Is Vera Kelly? can fit, but the freshness comes from Vera being a woman, and being queer too.

In fact, I would say that more of Vera’s character comes from being queer than it does from being a woman. She knows how to negotiate the world as a woman; she is self-assured and confident. We could have been easily treated to any number of scenes in which Vera is forced to be afraid of the men around her, but I can’t think of a single time that happened in this novel. She glides through even the most dangerous situations at least appearing to be in control to the people around her.

No, Vera’s true struggle comes in her sexuality. She is afraid to find the underground gay scene in Beunos Aires because that is the thing that could leave her open and vulnerable if anyone finds out. In the flashback scenes, we watch a young Vera first discover and then explore her sexuality. She is very much enduring the early queer experience of not knowing why she is so sad to be separated from her friend, or wondering why her letters to the same friend look like love letters.

The thing that makes Who Is Vera Kelly? such a great read is that we need queer stories exactly like it. Coming out stories have their place, of course, but we are in desperate need always of stories which do not have sexuality or gender identity as the main focus, but rather as part of the rich tapestry of a character, just as in novels with cishet main characters. By invoking these old classic spy thrillers in her tone and world building, but introducing a character who is a queer woman to explore it, Knecht has done a great job of providing exactly one of these highly necessary stories.

Review copy provided

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