In Review

Books of the Week: Agent Sonya and Dirt

New releases by Ben Macintyre and Bill Buford

Ben Macintyre tells the “extraordinary” story of Ursula Kuczynski, the Soviet spy who posed as an Oxfordshire housewife, and food writer Bill Buford provides a “rollicking” account of his time training at a Lyon restaurant.

Book of the week  Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre 

“When Ben Macintyre’s name is on the cover, you know you are in for a thrilling ride,” said Julian Glover in the London Evening Standard. The author and journalist is a “master” of mid-20th century espionage, with a string of bestsellers to his name. In his new book, he provides his first portrait of a female spy – the “extraordinary” Ursula Kuczynski, a Soviet agent during the 1930s and 1940s. Kuczynski, who posed as a housewife, was a spy of rare abilities – indeed, quite possibly, “the greatest agent of them all”. She makes an ideal subject for Macintyre, whose “remarkable trick” is to leave us “admiring, and even cheering for” a woman who “not only wanted to destroy our democracy, but helped Russia get a nuclear bomb”. 

Kuczynski was born in 1907 into a “wealthy, cultured Jewish family in Berlin”, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. After becoming a Communist during the Weimar years, she married an architect named Rudolf Hamburger, and moved to Shanghai. There, she began an affair with the Soviet spymaster Richard Sorge, who recruited her into his network. “Agent Sonya” proved perfectly suited to “high-risk espionage”, said Richard Davenport-Hines in The Times: she was “intrepid, adaptable and canny”. In the 1930s, Kuczynski was posted to Poland and then to Switzerland, before she moved, with her second husband – Len Beurton, a half-British Communist – to England in 1940. Macintyre is “cool, humane, sympathetic” and amusing, too: Agent Sonya is his “best book yet”. 

In England, Kuczynski settled in rural Oxfordshire, and embarked on the “most extraordinary chapter of her life”, said Giles Milton in The Sunday Times. She became the handler of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist working on Britain’s atomic bomb project, who fed her “technical drawings, formulae and calculations for uranium enrichment”. This intelligence enabled Russia to build its own nuclear bomb by 1949. “Equally mind-boggling” was the ineptitude of MI5, who had long entertained suspicions about Kuczynski. “MI5’s fabled spy-catcher, Jim Skardon, proved particularly hapless. He interrogated Kuczynski at length, yet refused to believe that a prim Oxfordshire housewife could be a spy.” Agent Sonya is mostly “fascinating”, said Lara Feigel in The Guardian. Its one failing is that Macintyre “doesn’t always pause to ask questions”. Why, for instance, did Kuczynski remain “fervently committed” to communism even after learning about the worst of Stalinism? This is lost, as Macintyre proceeds with “cinematic speed”.

Viking 400pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Dirt by Bill Buford 

In his 40s, the US author Bill Buford developed a passion for cooking, and immersed himself in Italian cuisine, said Adam Begley in The Spectator. The result was Heat, his “joyously gluttonous” memoir of the experience, published to acclaim in 2006. Next, Buford “uprooted” his wife and three-year-old twins to France’s “gastronomic capital”, Lyon, and spent five years toiling as a chef. Dirt is his account of this period, and it’s “another rollicking, food-stuffed entertainment”. This is a book that will appeal not only to “gourmets and gourmands”, but also to students of the author’s “curious” character. 

Buford has always sought out “extreme experiences”, said Moira Hodgson in The Wall Street Journal: his first book, Among the Thugs, was about British football hooligans. His time in Lyon is tough. The city is “very rough and entirely unwelcoming”, and at first he can’t get work in a restaurant, so instead takes a job as a baker’s apprentice. Eventually “he finds a restaurant willing to take him on” – the Michelin two-starred La Mère Brazier. There, he has to learn the rules of this “closed world”, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times: there’s even a correct way to crack an egg. Although “hazed and bullied” at first, Buford eventually becomes “very, very good in the kitchen” and loses his “impostor complex”. Dirt has a few irritating features: it’s over-long, and never explains how, despite losing both their incomes, he and his wife can rent a Lyon apartment with “six marble fireplaces”. Yet overall, it’s a work I admired “enormously” – for its culinary insights, for its observations about French society, and for Buford’s “smart, literate, sly voice”.

Jonathan Cape 432pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £18.99

The Week Bookshop 

To order these titles or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020 3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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