Northern Spy was selected as the April 2021 pic for Reese’s Book Club. It’s a pretty dark choice compared to Reese’s usual books. But then, that’s what makes it an interesting read for a book club.
The sectarian war of the Irish Isles is still echoing in the modern day setting of this page turner. It covers themes of loyalty (between family members and with found family), and how a series of smaller choices can lead you in a disastrous direction. There’s a lot to talk about here, and our Northern Spy book club questions will help you get started.
Start with the Northern Spy synopsis below. Does it accurately reflect your experience of the book? If not, how might you re-write it?
Then dive into our 10 Northern Spy book club questions for a deep conversation. You can also review some of the selected Good Reads reviews to further deepen your book club discussion.
And finally, if you liked the book, get three suggestions for more books like Northern Spy.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Northern Spy Synopsis
Northern Spy, by Flynn Berry
A producer at the BBC and mother to a new baby, Tessa is at work in Belfast one day when the news of another raid comes on the air. The IRA may have gone underground in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, but they never really went away, and lately bomb threats, security checkpoints, and helicopters floating ominously over the city have become features of everyday life. As the news reporter requests the public’s help in locating those responsible for the robbery, security footage reveals Tessa’s sister, Marian, pulling a black ski mask over her face.
The police believe Marian has joined the IRA, but Tessa is convinced she must have been abducted or coerced; the sisters have always opposed the violence enacted in the name of uniting Ireland. And besides, Marian is vacationing on the north coast. Tessa just spoke to her yesterday.
When the truth about Marian comes to light, Tessa is faced with impossible choices that will test the limits of her ideals, the bonds of her family, her notions of right and wrong, and her identity as a sister and a mother. Walking an increasingly perilous road, she wants nothing more than to protect the one person she loves more fiercely than her sister: her infant son, Finn.
Riveting, atmospheric, and exquisitely written, Northern Spy is at once a heart-pounding story of the contemporary IRA and a moving portrait of sister- and motherhood, and of life in a deeply divided society.
10 Northern Spy Book Club Questions
- How much did you know about The Troubles in Northern Ireland before reading this book? Does it make you want to learn more?
- The most violent period of The Troubles was during the 1980’s. And yet, here in the novel’s modern day Northern Ireland, there are still sectarian struggles afoot. How might you extrapolate this circumstance to the current situation in Iraq, Libya, Yemen or South Sudan? How can healing and reconciliation happen?
- Tessa makes quite a transformation in Northern Spy. She makes a pretty stark pivot from “loving mom who is worried for her sister” to “MI5 informant”. It’s like that old boiling frog fable where the water is turned up so slowly that the frog doesn’t realize that it’s boiling until it’s too late. How did you react to the slow boil?
- Tessa works for the BBC and her role as a producer keeps her deeply connected to the regional political environment. Think about the author’s choice for Tessa’s profession. If she had simply been an accountant (bartender, dentist, teacher, financial advisor), would she have gotten in so deep?
- Marion was a contradiction. Loving auntie, kinda devoted sister, dedicated anarchist and spy. How did you square all of those different aspects of Marion’s personality? Why do you think she joined the IRA?
- Marion refers to her IRA crew as family…even as she is spying on them. What did you think of her relationships with Seamus, Damian and Niall?
- There is a very pointed statement being made in Northern Spy regarding class and place. Tessa and Marion’s Mom keeps house for people who are happy to let her take out the garbage…right up until reality intrudes. Do you see this sort of dynamic happening in your own community?
- Eamonn is an MI5 agent who, let’s be frank, took the intel and left both Marion and Tessa hanging in the wind. When you learned about MI5’s betrayal, did you want to give Eamonn a swift kick in his bits? Please be honest!
- Dang, that dramatic safe house scene! It has all of the elements of a thriller, with murder, betrayal, fireballs and dramatic escapes. Did you see the book headed there?
- If you get invested in the characters (and who doesn’t), you may find yourself wondering what happens to them past the last page. The book does offer a small glimpse into Tessa and Finn’s future. But there are practical considerations. Technically she and Finn are dead…and yet, his dad is still in the picture. How do you think that might play out for their family in the long term?
Selected Northern Spy Reviews to Spur Discussion
“I’m not sure I would recommend it for those wanting a mystery or thriller. although its labelled as such, the main focus is on two sisters and how the conflict in northern ireland impacts their lives. its more domestic drama with a bit of espionage, if anything.”
“Northern Spy is written in first person present tense which makes it more immediate and at times intense. The main character is a strong female who is three dimensional, someone I wanted to accompany through the story”
“The story delves into the bonds of family. What risks are you willing to take to protect those you love?”
“…this book takes place in an alternate reality 2018 Northern Ireland where political violence is much more widespread. If the author wanted to set the book during the Troubles, why not actually set the book during that time period, and not 20 years later?”
3 Books like Northern Spy
If you like the Irish setting, we have a whole article with 30 books set on the Irish Isles.
If you are working your way through Reese’s Book Club, then also check out our discussion guide for Such a Fun Age. And if you want more of the dark and twisty, check out our reading guide for The Guest List.
The Ghosts of Belfast
by Stuart Neville
If you were wondering why the civil war still haunts Northern Ireland, reading this book will give you some answers…and the shivers. The main character, Fegan, is (literally) haunted by those he killed during his time as an IRA hit man. Throughout the narrative, he is attempting to appease the ghosts by making things right.
This book is published by Soho Crime and they publish well written mysteries set all over the globe. You should check out their catalog to find more great international reads.
The Good Son
by Paul McVeigh
Mickey Donnelly is a pre-teen living in a notoriously tricky, Catholic Republican neighborhood during the 1980’s. The neighborhood is surrounded by Protestant neighborhoods, making freedom of movement a daily struggle. And if the general political Troubles weren’t enough, his Ma keeps calling him “gay”, his Da’s a drunk and his younger sister, Wee Maggie, is is only friend. It’s a poignant, funny coming of age story during a time of deep discord for Northern Ireland.
By Wendy Erskine
Sweet Home is is a short story collection set in contemporary Belfast. This isn’t a book about The Troubles. But rather, a character study of people going about their ordinary lives, only to find themselves at a crisis point. The cast of characters lead disappointing, messy lives frought with simering anxiety.
Have a listen on Audible. Try audio books for free for 30 days.
Share these Northern Spy book club discussion guide questions on Pinterest: