Review: An American Spy (Lauren Wilkinson)

This spy thriller, which follows the story of Marie, an African-American woman working for the FBI in the 1980s, is a fun and interesting read. The story starts with Marie fleeing an attempt on her life with her young twin sons to Martinique, the home of her mother. While she’s there she decides to write a letter to her sons. As she writes, “I’m writing this to give you honest answers to the questions I hazard to guess you’ll ask while you’re growing up. I’m writing it all down here just in case I’m not around to tell you.”

Early on in the book she delves into her work in the FBI, feeling isolated and misunderstood, trying to get promoted. A CIA operative recruits Marie for a job in Burkina Faso, to act as a honeypot to Thomas Sankara to help the US government meddle with the upcoming elections. She’s picked for the job primarily because she is an attractive Black francophone woman, something she knows full well.

One of my favourite parts of the book were her cultural and linguistic observations while in Burkina Faso. The protagonist is fascinating in her own right because she has a Caribbean mother and thus grew up speaking French in the United States. Due to growing up bilingual with two Black parents of different backgrounds she seems to have a greater sensibility to linguistic and cultural nuances than most. Her exploration of her own identity was interesting, in a country where all those around her look like her, but knew she wasn’t one of them.

I knew a fair bit about Thomas Sankara before I read the book, how he’s one of those much admired idealistic African political martyrs. One of those men, like Patrice Lumumba, who make you wonder what could have been for the African continent had they not been assassinated. I can see why Sankara would be a fascinating man to fictionalize. However, I’m not sure the romance was necessary. I understand it’s tricky putting a historical character into fiction, and when writing fiction the portrayal doesn’t have to be realistic. As someone who is both African and interested in African history I personally would have preferred a more realistic portrayal of him. He was married in reality, yet had an affair despite the protagonist painting him as a man of principle. Still my discomfort got me thinking about the whole craft of fictionalizing such a character so it was a useful exercise. 

All in all, I did enjoy the book. When I read books like this I often wish that books with Black female protagonists existed when I was younger. I’m so glad they exist now because fiction is an ideal way to show how race and gender play roles in how we find ourselves and are perceived in the world. We all know stories of white male spies, now we have a story that can help us understand the trials faced by Black female spies.



All book reviews are the personal and subjective opinion of the reviewer. No compensation was received for this review. 

Skip to content