Book review: Edith and Kim by Charlotte Philby

A slow-burn spy novel that will appeal to fans of literary historical fiction.

In June 1934, Kim Philby met his Soviet handler, the spy Arnold Deutsch. The woman who introduced them changed the course of history. Her name was Edith Tudor-Hart.

Who doesn’t love a good spy novel? Espionage, undercover operations, the thrill of wondering if they will be caught…Except, Edith and Kim has none of this intrigue. Instead, Philby tells the story of Edith Tudor-Hart, the woman who changed the course of 20th century history, and was then written out of it.

The novel opens with Edith’s early years in Vienna. The daughter of a bookstore owner and publisher, who sold radical, left wing books, Edith’s left wing leanings were ingrained since childhood. She studied in London under Maria Montessori, and went on to learn photography in Dessau, where she was influenced by the Bauhaus movement.

Edith’s story alternates, briefly, with Kim’s — the son of a British Arabist, known also as Sheikh Abdullah, and explorer, Kim had a rather unorthodox upbringing. While he went to all the right schools, he was never really interested in the life that was expected of someone in his position. When he crosses paths with Edith in the early 1930s in Austria, she immediately recognizes Kim as a like-minded soul, and soon recruits him to the communist cause.

As things start to heat up in Austria, with the rise of fascism and the crackdown on communism, Edith flees to London with her husband, British doctor Alexander Tudor-Hart. There, with her photography work providing the perfect cover, Edith continues her work for the Soviet’s communist cause.

Through evocative prose, drawing on secret intelligence files on Edith, along with the private archive letters of Kim Philby, Charlotte Philby tells the story of the woman who was instrumental in the recruiting of the Cambridge Spy ring, which damaged British intelligence from World War II until their identities were discovered in the mid-1960s.

She traces Edith’s work in Britain, her passion and dedication towards the communist cause, her rocky marriage with Alex, and her struggle to raise her son Tommy, a mentally unstable child who she insisted was emotionally damaged by the London Blitz.

Unlike most spy thrillers, this is a slow-paced but engrossing novel with a rather haunting sense of time and place that takes a close look at the daily life, struggles, and fears of a committed activist and a single working mother alongside her work for the communist cause. If you enjoy literary historical fiction and are willing to give a slower paced spy novel that has no espionage and intrigue, but provides, instead, a closer look at the lives and convictions of those who work in the background, you will enjoy this book.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this review, Shinjini. Not a fan of spy thrillers but since this also happens to be an interesting piece of literary fiction, might give it a try.

  2. I’m not a big fan of slow paced writing, but this seems really good. Spy thrillers make for some really good reads.

  3. The way you narrated this story makes me want to grab a copy of the book, Shinjini. I enjoy reading literary fictions and spy thrillers. Will check this one out. Thank you for sharing the review, Shinj!

  4. This sounds so awesome. I love books built around powerful women who change history. Women played an important role during the war, I hope we get to read more about them.

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