There can not be a better metaphor for the cold war than the game of chess. But more than the metaphor, of course, was the very real rivalry between the West and Russia across the chess board. Both of these aspects are used to great effect by Patrick Worrall in his Cold War debut The Partisan.
There are lots of moving parts in The Partisan. The book opens with a woman called Greta, a Lithuanian partisan during the Second World War who now works with the Israelis, tracking down and killing former Nazis. A thread of the story set in 2004 has Greta telling the story of her war and the two Jewish fellow partisans who she ran with in the forests of Lithuania. Back in 1963, young English chess player Michael finds himself at an international chess competition and besotted with Russian chess prodigy Yulia. This is a bit of a Romeo and Juliet situation as Michael’s father is a senior member of the British secret service and Yulia is the daughter of a high flyers in the Soviet scientific and political hierarchy. Yulia and her family are also in the crosshairs of Karpov, the head of the MGB, a man who is also on Greta’s hit list for his violent activities after the Russians re-occupied Lithuania during World War 2.
It takes a while for Worrall to get all of his pieces onto the board but once he does the plot plays out like a game of chess. There are moves and counter moves, sacrifices and long term plays. While young lovers Michael and Yulia are in the middle of the action they are more pawns in the hands of much more powerful players. Worrall weaves the pasts of all of the main characters into the narrative, leading to some clever last minute reveals.
The Partisan is a classic Cold War tale, down to the centrality of chess in the narrative. Knowing that a possible nuclear catastrophe did not eventuate does not stop readers willing the characters to stop it or from the tension generally to build. And while some of the action scenes are a little bit muddied this isoverall a very engaging thriller.