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Stephen L. Carter s gripping new novel, Back Channel, is a brilliant amalgam of fact and fiction a suspenseful retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the fate of the world rests unexpectedly on the shoulders of a young college student.
On the island of Curacao, a visiting Soviet chess champion whispers state secrets to an American acquaintance.
In the Atlantic Ocean, a freighter struggles through a squall while trying to avoid surveillance.
And in Ithaca, New York, Margo Jensen, one of the few black women at Cornell, is asked to go to Eastern Europe to babysit a madman.
As the clock ticks toward World War III, Margo undertakes her harrowing journey. Pursued by the hawks on both sides, protected by nothing but her own ingenuity and courage, Margo is drawn ever more deeply into the crossfire and into her own family s hidden past."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-06-30
- Reviewer: Staff
In the prologue of Carter’s intriguing what-if thriller, Margo Jensen, a bright 19-year-old Cornell student, meets privately in Washington, D.C., with President Kennedy, who is trying to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis without triggering nuclear war. Earlier that fall, Margo became involved in a covert intelligence operation through a brilliant Cornell professor of hers, Lorenz Niemeyer, who’s an expert on Conflict Theory. Margo learns that a Russian chess champion, Vasily Smyslov, has alerted the U.S. to a surprise Soviet move in Cuba. The only way to get more details from Smyslov is to send an American counterpart, Bobby Fischer, to Russia to sound him out, and Fischer will only go if Margo, whom he considers to be a good-luck charm, accompanies him. Carter (The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln) makes this audacious premise convincing and manages to build suspense around a historical event with a known outcome. Author tour. (Aug.)
Can a precocious teen end the Cold War?
The first thing you may think when reading the opening pages of Stephen L. Carter’s engrossing Back Channel is, “What in the devil is going on here?” It’s 1962 and we’re at the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy is in a townhouse with a 19-year-old African-American girl, but not for the reason you think. It seems that this young lady is the key to stopping the world from becoming a glowing, radioactive ember in the darkness of space. You can’t be blamed if your first reaction is bemusement.
But even before this assignation, the young lady, Margo Evans, is sent to Bulgaria to babysit a real historical figure—you would never in a million years guess who it is. (Don’t worry, it isn’t Comrade Khrushchev.) Now, on top of your bemusement, you have to wonder, “Were things during the Cold War that desperate?” Anyway, Margo’s fractious charge has been approached by some Russian muckety-muck who may or may not tell him just what’s in all those crates the Soviets are shipping to Cuba. Her task is to get him to tell her so she can tell her handlers, or something like that.
But when the charge refuses to show up for a meeting because of obsessions he finds more pressing, Margo goes in his place. The experience proves traumatic, but then, to paraphrase one character, “Things get funny.”
If that’s not enough to keep you hooked, Carter surrounds Margo with people who are decidedly not nice and situations that are beyond surreal. Watching Margo navigate among so many landsharks, including our charming horndog of a POTUS, is fascinating in its own right.
Then, there’s Margo herself. Brilliant, logical, ambitious, patriotic in her own way, somewhat chilly in demeanor, she may remind you of a young Condoleeza Rice. But it’s her vulnerability, ultimately, that fascinates. She’s a girl, she’s an orphan, she’s a virgin, she doesn’t quite know what she’s supposed to do or how she’s supposed to do it. That you’re here to read this review tells you one outcome of her ordeal. For the rest of it, you’ll have to read Carter’s smart and snappy page-turner.