Review published on July 9, 2018.
Porter’s novels tend to spring from his journalism, they also tend to be in the moment, or at least relevant. None more so than his new novel Firefly, the first in seven years. Essentially, a chase thriller, Firefly is exciting and pacy but, as you would expect from a politically aware novelist, also thought provoking. Unlike some of his books, the intelligence services and the surveillance state are not the enemy here (Are they our friends? That’s more debatable). However, when it comes down to it, it is one decent man with a small group of determined friends electing to do the right thing that wins the day. Porter excels in the zeitgeist but his books usually have a well-defined historical context; Firefly is a bit different. Firefly is a compassionate novel that exposes the dark underbelly of the refugee crisis in Europe but as seen through the personal journey of one young refugee. It’s an intelligent take on the modern political landscape and the on going war on terror. Ultimately an enriching read, you might even say worthy read, but this in no way detracts from the full on thrilling adventure that unfolds for us. Naji’s story is front and centre all the way and the hunt dominates the action rather than conspiracy and intelligence machinations. Porter has always been strong on the human aspects of spying but Firefly is intensely so because it is so centred on Naji and his would-be rescuer, Samson, a man who understands the plight of the refugee all too well.
In the Mediterranean Sea near Greece a small craft crashes into the rocks, a young boy is tossed into the sea. It’s another of many desperate attempt to make it to Europe, the kind of thing refugees try every day. Naji begins to sink, he’s about to drown, he isn’t used to water, he can’t swim. A sudden push from below lifts him towards the surface long enough for him to grasp onto a toggle on the raft, which is floating aimlessly in the rough sea. He hangs on for dear life, at twelve he is a child forced to act like an adult; he has the responsibility for another life, he is clutching a baby, promising it a bright future if they can just make it to shore. Unsure his strength will hold out he hears an engine, a jet ski, they will be rescued. Naji is taken to a camp on Lesbos. The rumour is that a dolphin saved his life, other are not so lucky.
In London, Paul Samson is still angry at the service for getting rid of him; as he sees it, just because he liked a bet. Sure, the sums involved were large but it was his money and actually he won. Now he freelances for a private intelligence agency set up by Maty Harp and an ex-BND colleague, Samson is good at finding people but today they are looking for him. He’s at his mother’s restaurant, Cedar, when the SIS come calling, Peter Nyman says they have a job for him, a one off, right up his street. They’ve talked to Maty at Hendricks-Harp and ok’ed it. They know the kind of work Samson has been doing, they have photos of him on the Turkey-Syria border, supposedly rescuing artefacts from the terrorists of Islamic State. SIS don’t believe that story but don’t know about Aysel Hisami or her brother Denis. Samson doesn’t want to drop that matter but unfortunately it looks like the search for Aysel might end badly anyway, so Samson agrees to take some time out to help SIS. They want a boy found, they don’t even have a name yet, but they are looking for him because he is carrying information about a group of terrorists returning to Europe from Syria. Naji was a witness to the slaughter of his village, Hajar Saqat, by these same people. Its not the only tragedy the boy has known in his life.
Naji knows he needs help to make it to mainland Europe. He recruits a sixteen-year-old Syrian, Hakim, to get him on a boat to Athens, then they part ways. The boy is vulnerable and his route is fraught with danger, the people who prey on the refugees know exactly where to intercept the travellers, the locals can be hostile. But now he is being hunted. Not just by the British (with the cooperation of the German, Greek and Belgian intelligence services), but also by the corrupt officials ready to take terrorist money and the terrorists themselves led by a man they call “The Machete”. He wants the secrets Naji stole returned and to see the boy dead. Firefly is a compassionate novel. It highlights the plight of refugees, often children and the struggle they face on a daily basis. Naji is a resourceful hero, a boy forced to make choices no child should ever be faced with. You will marvel at his courage and his ingenuity and his instinct for survival. The suffering he has known, the terrible things he has witnessed at the hands of IS make all the more determined to find a better life for himself and his sisters, a life in Islamic State would have meant slavery for the girls. The power of this novel is in its credible portrayal of a very human story from the tragedy to the war in Syria and the refugee crisis to the threat of terrorism in Europe. The hunt across Greece and Macedonia for a boy seeking to bring justice to his village and prevent more atrocities carries real peril, there are good people too mind, Anastasia gets Samson started on his journey following the boy. The pace is brisk and the denouement very satisfying. The story of Aysel intersects with that of Naji cleverly.
Porter’s debut, Remembrance Day (1999), was an explosive thriller set during the Troubles, a brilliant first novel, fast and furious. My personal favourite is Brandenburg (2005), a masterpiece of rare insight and complexity about the fall of The Wall and the movement for revolution in eastern Europe. Stylistically more straightforward, more at ease with itself is Firefly, consummate writing and so very relevant to today.
Paul Burke 5/4
Firefly by Henry Porter
Quercus 9781787470491 hbk Jun 2018