Cover image of "The Peacock and the Sparrow," a novel about a spy's last posting for the CIA

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Shane Collins is fifty-two and divorced, a heavy drinker two months into his last posting for the CIA. It’s 2012, and the Middle East is aflame in the Arab Spring. King Jassim of Bahrain, as much as any ruler, is vulnerable. Seventy percent of the population is Shia, and half are guest workers. But Shane has a window into Fourteen February through his agent, Rashid, a planning officer with access to the rebels’ inner circle.

Unfortunately, Shane’s new boss questions Rashid’s value. Whitney Alden Mitchell is a twenty-eight-year-old rising star in the Agency, and he insists on ever more dramatic intelligence from Shane. But even when Shane coaxes big revelations from Rashid, Mitchell remains skeptical. Meanwhile, Shane independently turns up evidence that a massive bombing blamed on Fourteen February may have actually been the work of the government. And Whitney Alden Mitchell will have none of that, either.

Solid intelligence collides with policymakers’ priorities

Thus begins The Peacock and the Sparrow by former CIA operations officer I. S. Berry. With our attention drawn to Shane’s unraveling life, we witness the inner workings of the Bahrain station through his eyes. His affair with the wife of one of his colleagues. And his growing love for an Iraqi woman artist he met at a museum. Meanwhile, Rashid continues to turn up ever more dramatic revelations about Fourteen February. He believes, rightly, that Shane is a friend and shares his hatred of the king and his oppressive government. But no matter what important information Shane turns over to Mitchell, the man remains unimpressed, believing Rashid is misleading them. All he cares about is obtaining evidence that Iran is supplying weapons to the rebels.

The Peacock and the Sparrow by I. S. Berry (2023) 320 pages ★★★★★

Aerial view of Manama, Bahrain, setting for this novel about a spy's last posting for the CIA
Aerial view of Bahrain Bay in the city-state where most of this novel is set. Image: Urban Planning and Development Authority

A compelling portrayal of a country in upheaval

The Peacock and the Sparrow conveys an insider’s picture of what life is really like for a CIA operations officer in a difficult posting. At the same time, its portrayal of the tumult and day-to-day uncertainty of the Arab Spring is compelling. As is the author’s penetrating view of Bahrain’s endemic poverty amid the splendor of its Sunni rulers. The book is beautifully written, and the characters fully fleshed and believable. Berry’s depiction of Shane Collins’ unraveling life is especially arresting. The author is a supreme talent. I hope we’ll see a lot more from her in the future.

The setting

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island nation situated on an archipelago of both natural and artificial islands in the Persian Gulf. It lies between Qatar and the coast of Saudi Arabia. The largest island, Bahrain, dominates the nation of 1.5 million. (Only half are Bahraini nationals. Guest workers from India and other countries comprise the other half.) Seventy percent of the population is Shia, but the King and his government are Sunni and allied with Saudi Arabia.

Long a source of oil, Bahrain’s wells had largely paid out by the early 21st century. But the government had wisely invested heavily in banking and tourism, and the kingdom continues to flourish.

Bahrain is home to the US Navy‘s Central Command and the Fifth Fleet.

For nearly three years, from 2011 to 2014, Bahrain was wracked by an ongoing series of demonstrations by Shia activists and a few Sunni dissidents inspired by the Arab Spring. But the events portrayed in this novel are fictional and do not reflect the reality that unfolded in Bahrain during those years. Instead, they seem to represent the author’s effort to convey the essence of the Arab Spring across the region, where it was often far more violent than it was in Bahrain.

About the author

Photo of I. S. Berry, author of this novel about a spy's last posting for the CIA
I. S. Berry. Image: The Strand Magazine

As her publisher notes, “I.S. Berry spent six years as an operations officer for the CIA, serving in wartime Baghdad and elsewhere. She has lived and worked throughout Europe and the Middle East, including two years in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Haverford College. Raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, she lives in Virginia with her husband and son.”

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