The Peacock and the Sparrow by I.S. Berry is set in Bahrain in 2011-12, with the Shiite-majority population energized by the Arab Spring, restless under a Sunni-minority monarchy. “The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population,” reports the US State Department. Bahrain's population is small, 1.4 million, or as many in San Antonio, Texas. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is a non-NATO ally, but stability with the king and regional security take priority over human rights.
Protagonist Shane Collins works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and like most spies, regularly lies, a habit that seeps into his personal relationships. He manipulates informants, colleagues and lovers for his own purposes, at one point smugly noting: “A spy was a spy, and at fifty-two I could still lure a fish into my net.”
Collins poses as a diplomat, a role that should raise eyebrows among any of his contacts. His third month into Bahrain, he is unhappy: “The point where any extant novelty or exoticism has worn off. Where you sink deeper into foreign soil but it repulses and rejects you, shuns your alien roots. Where you become trapped in the amber of the transplanted elite.” A slacker, lacking self-esteem, he fails to rise through the ranks over the years and works for a polished and younger boss with Ivy League credentials. Collins centers his life around alcohol and when he plays music for a lover, it “like I was hearing it myself for the first time, its euphony fresh, a first sip of whiskey before it descends from pleasure into routine into necessity.”
The writing is strong, the noir tone compelling, and it’s hard to believe the book is the author's first. Still, the book has problems.
First, Collins engages in excessive stereotyping, about gender and nationality. For example, he describes his love interest, Almaisa who is an artist: “She had none of the triviality or false femineity of American women; neither did she have the humorless affectation of European women.” He goes on: “A feminist some might call her (though one, I learned, who recoiled from the label.)” Such labeling often leads to cliches: “She was the living product of East and West, a combination that often seemed as fraught with conflict as the two hemispheres.”
Collins prides himself on breaking down Almaisa's Muslim sensibilities, convincing her to ride in a car with him, try some wine, discard the veil and spend nights in a secluded place. She wears colorful hijabs and he gets her to admit: “mother had never worn a hijab, that it was nothing more than custom, the Quran silent on the subject, that she mostly wore the garment to blend in rather out of religious conviction. Despite Almaisa’s disdain for Western mores, her aversion to becoming like my female compatriots (whom she accused of hedonism and exhibitionism – and was she in truth so far off?), she eventually gave way.”
He assumes that he is in full charge of the relationship: “Not so different, after all, from the delicate give-and-take dance with an informant, an unending alternation between obeisance and control.”
The book fictionalizes details and damages of the Bahrain uprising. The plot also takes a long, strange turn as Collins travels to Southeast Asia, raising questions for this reader about why any supervisor would send or trust him. Collins meets reader expectations by transporting a packet for an informant, scheming against supervisors and arranging documents that later assure his own survival.
Collins as spy becomes target. Belatedly reaching this conclusion, the character escapes the destruction unleashed by his actions and that of US policy, but not without betrayal on multiple fronts. In his world, everyone cheats.