Thursday 4 October 2018

Book Review: A Divided Life by Robert Cecil (Non-Fiction/Biography)

Title: A Divided Life
Author: Robert Cecil
Thistle Publishing

Publication Date: 4 October 2018
eBook - PDF
Review Copy from Publisher


In this perceptive biography of Donald Maclean, Robert Cecil draws on his close acquaintance with the man, first at Cambridge and then as his colleague in the Diplomatic Service, to give an insider’s view of Maclean and his circle of ideological spies: Burgess, Philby and Blunt.

He details Maclean’s recruitment as an agent by the Comintern in 1934, his early years in Paris, marriage, breakdown in Cairo and ultimate flight, with Burgess, to the Soviet Union. The heart of the book is Maclean’s years in Washington from 1944-48, a time when crucial decisions about the post-war world were being made.

Maclean was assigned top secret work connected with the development of the atomic bomb – the ‘Manhattan Project’. He was undoubtedly Stalin’s best source in Washington, and Russian knowledge of US nuclear capabilities fuelled the atomic-weaponry race. His treachery did immense damage to Anglo-American relations. The other casualty, which Cecil is well-placed to describe, was to the gentlemanly culture of the Foreign Office and the sense of trust within the Service.

A Divided Life was an interesting read. I already knew of the Cambridge Five, but mostly I had read about Blunt and Burgess, so I was keen to learn more about Maclean. Cecil paints an interesting picture of Maclean's background, and then his work and activities as a Russian agent, including how this impacted family and friends after his flight. The details are interesting, but Cecil's prose is far from gripping. It also bugged me the way he kept suggesting that anyone homosexual was obviously also a spy/up to no good. I realise that is simply a reflection of the views in those times, but it did start to grate, and I think that's where this book fell down for me. It was originally published thirty years ago, and many of the explanations/justifications don't ring true anymore, which makes it seem dated. I think anyone writing a biography of Maclean now would approach it from a different angle. That said, it was still fascinating to learn more about him, so I would give this book 3.5 stars.

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