Nancy Oakes's Reviews > The Human Factor

The Human Factor by Graham Greene
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's review
Nov 28, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorite, spy-fiction
Read in December, 2008

The Human Factor highlights a man, Maurice Castle, who is driven at times to make choices based on love and an often-misplaced sense of moral duty that have some pretty serious consequences for himself and others.

Castle is an agent in MI6, and as the book opens, a leak has been discovered in his division. Suspicion falls on his partner, Davis, who seems to have a lot more money than an agent in his position should -- he bets,he drives a Jag -- and he's also a pretty heavy drinker. Castle is older, near retirement, and leads a pretty quiet life, seemingly beyond reproach. But mild-mannered Castle is the one with the secret life. It started during his time in South Africa -- his black, African wife Sarah, was smuggled out of the apartheid-ruled country by a communist agent; and Castle long ago decided that he owed a debt of gratitude to the communists and started providing them with information from British intelligence, thinking that in some way he is helping Sarah's people. However, when his bosses decided that Castle will be the one who will provide their South African counterparts with information about an American operation in Africa, and he is forced to work with the very man who had held him on breaking race relations laws in South Africa vis-a-vis his relationship with Sarah there, a chain of events occurs which unravels his quiet and ordered life in England with his family.

However, this book really is NOT a story about espionage or the cold-war intelligence game. Castle marches to his own inner sense of personal morality, as noted by his mother at one point, where she says:

"You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness. It was a sort of insecurity ....You once gave away a good fountain pen to someone at school who had offered you a bun with a piece of chocolate inside."

It hit me while reading that this "sense of gratitude" is the key to understanding Maurice Castle -- and it offers an insight into the reasons behind Castle's actions. Loyalty, for Castle, begets loyalty, but the reader may make judgments based on his or her own understanding of patriotism or morality that misconstrue Castle's actions completely, so understanding Castle as a human being rather than as a spy or as a British citizen is key to understanding this story.

The Human Factor is truly an awesome novel, one of the best I've read this year. It starts out very slow, but the tension builds as the book progresses until you're so caught up in it that you can't look away. I'd definitely recommend it to people who enjoy British literature, and to those who enjoy reading about the grayness of human morality. It's also pretty decent as a novel of espionage if you don't want to get into the deeper aspects of the novel. Very highly recommended.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new)

Amy I have this on the shelf to read...along with Between Silk and Cyanide.

Nancy Oakes It's short, but packed. I've had this book on my shelf for like years and just never read it.

On Amazon, someone wrote that they were going to throw the book away because they didn't like that LeCarre made Communism seem good (or something like that)...I should send him an email re bookcrossing!

message 3: by Amy (new)

Amy Definitely. One of my projects is working my way through my "I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read this" books. There are a TON.

message 4: by David (new)

David Martin Just finished "The Human Factor". Brilliant. 5 stars

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