World Book Day is about celebrating books and authors. So in light of this I’ve decided to write about an author and her book, both of which mean a lot to me personally. The book is The Spy’s Wife and the author, who passed away in 2010, is Janet Coggin.
It’s strange in life how you may know someone for years, yet not really know them properly or at all. I’m saying this both from my personal experience and also as it is a big part of this book.
When I was a child living in the beautiful Irish countryside in the community where my sister and I grew up and my parents lived and worked, we shared a house in a stunning old estate with about 15 other people. The other inhabitants were a mixture of the people with disabilities that my parents worked with and their live-in carers, both long and short-term, my parents being the former. For many years during my childhood and adolescence a lovely lady by the name of Janet Coggin lived on the floor above us. During her free time we could always hear her typing away upstairs, her manual typewriter – which I sometimes borrowed to write my own short stories on – clacking away.
She was one of the most caring, unselfish, interesting and truly inspirational and amazing women I have ever met in my life. Janet was the one who first got me into writing. She believed in me, encouraging me to write and when I wrote my first short story at the age of 12 she read it, critiqued it and then gave me her typewriter to type it up on – a laborious task seeing it was a manual and each and every error unchangeable.
We used to spend hours chatting in the larder after supper or sitting outside on the patio in the gorgeous evening sunshine. She told me about her childhood in Devon with her sister and their horses and all the fun things they got up to. We talked about books and horses, shared passions for both of us as well as many other things.
Like her childhood, mine was idyllic but it was not till much later that I found out about the unbelievable secret and burden she was forced to carry around with her for most of her adult life. She was still living with us when her book, The Spy’s Wife, a true account of her life, was published. At first my parents wouldn’t let me read it but finally when I was a bit older they consented.
I recently finished reread her book, feeling much more keenly the emotions and trials of her life than I did as a teenager. In her early twenties, Janet, or Lilian as she is called in the book, married a South African naval officer and moved with him and their children to Simonstown in South Africa where they lived for a number of years. Over time her husband, who was often away at sea, became increasingly neurotic until finally one day he told her that he was a KGB master spy running a spy network in Europe, and would she become a spy and work as his partner.
Needless to say she didn’t have to think twice about it, but her decision had major consequences on her life and those of her children for years to come. She moved with her children to Dublin where they had to make a new life for themselves. She lived in daily fear of putting a foot wrong and the KGB network ending her life. Her husband had told her on parting that if she ever told anyone or made any bad moves, her life would be ended, ‘as it it were an accident.’
During these years she often returned to visit her father and her family home in Devonshire, which she describes as ‘a place where time stood still, a place where my childhood, adulthood and motherhood were all one.’ Not even to her father, who died before her ex husband was captured and she was free to talk, could she unburden and share her secret with as it would have put his life in danger.
The book is an account of a woman, a wife, a mother and a daughter who unwittingly enters into a union with a man whose life choices were to have a lasting impact on her life. Throughout the books she narrates calmly and with clarity, soul searching and trying to answer many questions. Even when her ex husband is caught by the FBI and carrying out a life sentence in prison in Pretoria, she is haunted by the repercussions of his choices and actions. She is always under surveillance and monitored, this time by governments and the secret service wherever she goes, she cannot get away from it. Yet through all of this she keeps going, keeping a sense of normality for her children and her father and in turn for herself.
When Janet finally left Ireland and moved back to England, we maintained a written correspondence for a number of years. I really missed her when she had gone, she was such an amazing person and as a child I never in a million years could have imagined the life this gentle and kind woman had experienced and the hardship and fear she had lived in for so many years.
So it is in the memory of this extraordinary woman and her life that I would like to celebrate this World Book Day.