Jason Matthews “The Red Sparrow” – book review

I heard of the book when the movie came out a few years ago. The movie had scathing reviews, but the rumour said the book was quite good. The author, Jason Matthews is a retired CIA agent. The book had very enthusiastic reviews – and was advertised as in “the tradition of John Le Carré”.

There is a mole-hunt on-going in the SVR (the agency that inherited the legacy of the KGB in Russia). Someone has been passing valuable information to the CIA.

Dominika, an SVR agent, is tasked with seducing Nate Nash, whom the SVR suspects of being the mole’s handler. But Dominika was blackmailed into joining the SVR in the first place. And maybe, just maybe, Nate Nash is her chance to fight back…

The novel is an impressive depiction of intelligence tradecraft – with spies winding their way across Washington and Moscow, losing their pursuit and depositing their secrets at hidden drop-points. A double-agent will discuss state secrets with his handler in a hired hotel room until the late hours of the morning.

If that were all this novel was, it would be fantastic.

But then, for some reason we have to have:

a) The weird case of tortoiseshell brush

First, we have a description of Dominika’s mother brushing her hair

“With the long-handled brush that belonged to her great-grandmother. The tortoiseshell brush with a gently curved handle that, along with a framed photograph and a silver samovar, was the only family belonging rescued from the elegant house in pre-Bolshevik Petersburg. The hog’s hair bristles made a quiet stirring sound, crimson in the air. Her hair was radiant.”

Ah, you think. A nice description of a sentimental family keepsake. Perhaps the brush will trigger some fond memories.


Dominika tests ”her corporeal boundaries without a thought of shame”

in the middle of a storm and holds

“The swan-necked handle of Prababuschkas brush in her long fingers, timing the lightning flashes to match her own rhythms”.

Okay, you say to yourself. Temporary glitch, the author is trying to write a teenage girl. The author clearly has no idea what he is talking about. Let’s forget about it. And about the clumsy literal depiction of ‘stormy adolescence’. But no.


In Dominika’s lesbian sex scene with a fellow student of the sparrow school:

“Her great-grandmother’s brush, her mother had brushed her own hair with it, it was her secret companion during the thunderstorms of her girlhood. Dominika trailed the handle down Anya’s stomach, making the soft amber curve infinitely light, infinitely insistent.”

The underlining is my own. Please note the return to the theme of both literal and metaphorical storms.

We believe that Great-Grandmother’s tortoiseshell brush may be the symbol both of Dominika’s stormy sexuality and her anti-regime resistance.

Not least, because regardless of the sexual pleasure the brush gives her at one point — in an entirely furious and non-sexual way — she fantasizes about sticking the same brush into a high ranking SVR official’s ass.

To brush the point home, as it were, the evil SVR executioner fantasizes about putting knives in the place the brush usually goes throughout the entire length of the novel.


I don’t even want to go there. When I was writing this blog I had a special Google of antique tortoiseshell brushes, just in case I was missing something crucial about them. But no. IT’S JUST A BRUSH.

Genuinely, there was a point where I thought I would give up reading this book. Some of it was the vaguely unrealistic circumstance of Dominika’s career. But to a great extent, it was the BRUSH.

b) A cooking recipe after every chapter

Because clearly, we need something to calm us down among all the sex and violence.

Initially, I thought this was a “cultural introduction to Russia” thing. Matthews is trying to make his American readers familiar with Russian cooking.

But no, when the characters travel to Italy or Greece, we get those recipes too.

It got to the point that whenever the characters ate a meal I had to check whether that was the recipe at the end of each chapter.

Seriously though. Is anyone tempted to recreate by the delicious sound of “SVR Cafeteria Chicken Kiev” (do we really think the spy cafeteria is that great at cooking?) or Marta’s “Last Meal- Pytt I Piana“ (eaten just before Marta is sexually abused and murdered?)

I do love a good spy novel. I really enjoyed Matthews’s descriptions of the ‘retired’ CIA agents sitting on the Russian resident’s tail, trying to predict the way he moves. Unlike the FBI, these guys plan in the scale of months rather than days. Chief amongst them is “ ’the Philosopher’ goateed Socrates Burbank, nearly eighty, thrice-married and thrice divorced”.

Genuinely, when Burbank’s elderly team of grandparents where following the Russian resident in Washington, I was rooting for them- probably more than I was for Nash or Dominika at any point in this novel.

If this was a novel about old spies in suits, I’D BE SO HAPPY.

But no, we have to have sex-crazed agents who read human emotions through synesthesia and cook really elaborate meals in their tiny rented flats for no apparent reason.

So though I enjoyed some short bits of this novel, I probably can’t really recommend it. Unless you’re looking for something silly to take your mind off things during this COVID-19 crisis. In that case, read away!

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