Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency.
Set mostly in London during the early 70s, it is told (in hindsight from the present day) by Serena Frome, a bishops daughter brought up in the genteel walled garden of a cathedral precinct. We learn in the first paragraph that she was sent on a secret mission 40 years ago, and that it ended badly for her and her lover.
Almost a hundred pages pass before we discover the precise nature of this mission; a more leisurely prelude than usual, but just as mesmerizing as its predecessors, with every page adding some new hint that deepens or adjusts our sense of what is going to be at stake in Serenas story.
Canning dumps Serena with sudden and (to her) inexplicable cruelty, disappearing out of the story for a long time, and
as Serena takes up her career at MI5 other themes emerge.