Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre – Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy sounded like a very interesting book. The blurb mentions: “In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent. By all accounts, she seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life. Her neighbours in the village knew little about her.”

So, I imagined the book will start in the 1940s, with a naive woman. Well, it can’t get further from the truth. Her story starts in the 1920s, she was aware of Stalin’s purges, but decided to think that these were “mistakes”. Her story is truly fascinating, so I recommend the book. I don’t want to say too much to avoid spoilers. The only thing that I didn’t like was Macintyre’s assumptions, which appear again and again.

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

To avoid spoilers I’m going to talk about her children. In the book, Macintyre writes: “She adored her children”. I wonder how is he privy to this fact. At best, by looking at her diaries and correspondence, he could say: she said she adored her children. By talking with her children, he could have said that they believed she adored them.

So she could go and do spy related things, she left her son in the middle of the night, so he wouldn’t cry and beg her not to leave him for months. When she came and her boy didn’t know her (he was three at that time), she forced him into the car, because, again, the spy-stuff had precedence. She kept her second child, despite great risks to her, their fathers (all 3 children had a different father), and, of course, her children. They could have been killed, but spying for Russia was more important than the rest. Her first son loved his father, but, again, there are issues there too, and she treated her first husband appalling. Toys were used to smuggle transmitting equipment, children were used as a cover too. None of this shows that she ADORED her children, she cared for them and maybe even loved them, but surely not adored. I don’t understand the desire to white-wash her story.

Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre

Details about the picture: –
My rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: yes
Published by: Crown Publishing Group
Year it was published: 2020
Format: Hardcover
Genre(s): Biography
Pages: 378

About the author: Ben Macintyre is a writer-at-large for The Times, U.K., and the author of: The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work.
Website & Social Media Links: –

6 thoughts on “Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre”

  • I have read reviews of this book and knew I want to read it. My husband bought it for me, and I hope I’ll have a chance to read it soon. I think those were the times, when people felt very strongly about the social injustice and sacrificied their families for the sake of ideas. To you and me it might sound as an uncaring mother, but she might have thought she was building a better future for them, who knows. Anyway, this book sounds fascinating.

    • The facts suggest otherwise though, she had her second child despite the fact that she knew they would be in danger and she had her third because it was a very good cover too. It’s not like she had her children and then fought for her principles, like many others did (from what I read during the Spanish Civil War). Also, I didn’t say that she was not caring, but surely not adoring. The exaggerations are really annoying for me.
      I am very curious what you think of the book.

  • I have looked at this author’s books so many times, in fact I’m sure I have one of them on my TBR list somewhere, but that’s as far as I have ever got with them!

    The whole spy culture really intrigues and interests me, however I wonder if he rather paints all his subjects in such a ‘rose coloured’ way, as you think he did Agent Sonia? In which case I probably won’t bother reading the one I have, let alone add any more to the list!

    If you don’t know all the facts, don’t embellish the ones you do have, just to pad out a story to make it worthwhile printing. I can see even more clearly, the appeal of some of the shorter ‘bite-sized’ historical books you read now, at least they are honest and true to the facts.

    Thanks for your honest and thoughtful take on this one 🙂

    • I am curious too if all his subjects are presented in a very good light. For me the truth works just fine, no need for white-washing, rose-tinting, or anything else.
      I would/will read more of his books because I am fascinated by spying, but it’s just the case of “with a pinch of salt”.

  • You make some very interesting observations about her relationship with her children. I’m not sure I could assume she adored them based on her actions.
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    • For me adoring means being willing to go above and beyond for her children. Ursula/Sonya was not that kind of mother and this is why I was annoyed by the “adoring” comment, as an example. She did what she could to protect them, but she was the one placing them in danger in the first place. The story is fascinating and well worth a read, as she went to China and to Switzerland, before going to UK. There is no need for white-washing what she did.

      I could have said more about her first husband and so on, but that would have meant spoilers, so I talked only of her children.

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