This historical fiction – the story of an American FBI agent’s affair with Thomas Sankara, deposed President of Burkina Faso, 1983 – 1987, is an interesting reimagination of the life of a fascinating, under-celebrated man. The story is written from the perspective of Marie Mitchell, years after the fictionalised affair and very real assassination of Sankara oscillates between past and present. Mitchell looks back on her childhood, analysing how it shaped her adulthood while also reflecting on her meeting and subsequent affair with Sankara in a journal written for the benefit of her children: products of her illicit affair.
Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy begins with Mitchell thwarting an intruder and would be murderer, an incident that sends her – sons in tow, running to Martinique and her mother with whom she has a complex relationship. This tension in the relationship with her mother as well as the imminent danger facing herself and her sons are the triggers that send Mitchell hurtling down memory lane, eager to leave for her sons an origin story that is more than just her living side of the family. The secret of their conception and birth are thus written in a journal – the writing of which signifies a possible separation of mother and children, an ironic echo of Mitchell’s childhood.
Wilkinson is smart to link her protagonist’s childhood and familial relationship to the eventuality of her role as a covert operative and mistress to Sankara. It allows the retrospective lens through which we get most of the story to take an introspective turn, grounding the story in a way that allows the reader to sometimes forget that this is fiction. Mitchell and the Sankara reimagined in this novel become living, breathing figures that could have existed in history the way we encounter them in American Spy.
By creating, pointedly Sankara in this way, Mitchell piques the readers interest, pushing further research of a man very sparsely spoken of in history. As the novel centres around his relationships and visits to America, much of what is on display is his battle with America whilst in power and the ways this possibly spurred or distracted from his goals as President. These presidential goals are expanded on in the novel, partly as a tool to showcase the depth of conversation between Mitchell and her would be lover and also in my opinion as an honouring of the fantastic, dynamic vision Sankara had for Burkina Faso. His four-year rule saw accomplishments that are almost unparalleled for any leader taking over a failing government. One marked accomplishment being the immunisation of over one million children in the country.
That he ruled in a period where America appointed themselves the defenders against communism, sending in their forces and running covert operations in countries that sought to be self-sustainable is a great narrative inspiration that Mitchell uses to her advantage. This is because we see the novel shift between Burkina Faso and America thus changing the home state advantage for Mitchell and Sankara, impacting how they relate to one another. The shifting of location in the interactions between Sankara and Mitchell as well as the movement between multiple pasts and the singular present perfectly fits into the ‘spy’ aspect of this novel. Wilkinson is able to create intrigue for the reader as we are pulled and pushed into different periods in a way that has us, much like a spy piecing together the narrative.
There is in historical fiction, the temptation for authors to get too fanciful when given the space to reimagine the past, but by keeping the tone of the narrative very matter of fact, balancing emotional moments with rationale, Wilkinson is able to keep an air of factuality and reality around this narrative. Mitchell’s telling of the past is not chronological, mirroring therefore a mind in turmoil – a mother fearful for her children, desperate to complete this journal incase of fatality. There is a humanity to this way of storytelling that makes Mitchell real, an act which brings Sankara to life for the many, who are unaware of him and his legacy.
American Spy is an interesting read for lovers of historical fiction. It also is a great way to get people thinking about Burkina Faso and what it lost when Sankara was assassinated in 1987. Wilkinson’s telling of this story is respectful of a very real history whilst also a wonderful work of fiction.
We’re very excited about this story and even more excited at being able to see the conversation it’ll elicit. To aid this, we have partnered with @dialoguebooks to giveaway 10 signed copies of this novel. Apply by following rules on our latest social media post, following our platform and Dialogue Books. Winners will be chosen and contacted on 15th July 2019. EU applicants only.