Book Review: The Imitator by Rebecca Starford…

The Imitator…

About the Book:

A page-turning World War Two spy thriller, based on true events.

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

My Thoughts:

‘It was during those cold mornings that Evelyn learnt that truth was found at the edges of people…’

I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected, and that’s not at all because my expectations were low, rather, the novel itself was just so much deeper and more insightful on a level I wasn’t anticipating. The era it deals with is at the beginning of WWII, during a phase sometimes referred to as ‘the phony war’. Evelyn is recruited into MI5 to infiltrate an underground movement of Nazi sympathisers. While this novel is on the one hand a suspenseful thriller filled with spies and double crossing, it’s also a deeply affecting character study of a woman caught between lives. I really loved it, the literary aspect gripping me even more than the suspense.

‘Evelyn thought about her own mother standing at the kitchen sink, the slope of her shoulders, that fragile bun. She could see the course of their estrangement like footprints trailing down the hallway and out the front door, but for once it didn’t feel as though she had done something wrong.’

Evelyn is a woman who is no stranger to making herself into someone new for whatever the situation requires. She does this from a young age in boarding school and continues on from there. She is, in essence, the perfect person to become a spy. Evelyn herself is thrilled with the opportunity, feels she is not only doing something exciting as a job but also making a worthwhile contribution to the war effort. But of course, nothing is ever as it seems on the surface, and there is a cost to this type of job, an impact upon her life that she could not possibly have foreseen. The experience of being a spy was different for women, there was a particular pressure to use your ‘feminine charm’ to ingratiate yourself. There was also a particular tendency for women to get thrown under the bus when everything went pear shaped. I appreciated the subtle ways in which this was conveyed throughout the narrative. There was a great deal implied with a minimum degree of obviousness.

‘Truth didn’t matter. These people had come because they knew they would have their insane beliefs confirmed.’

For those who know Evelyn, she is something of an enigma. Considered cold and standoffish, but with an obvious intelligence that makes her appealing. She is also attractive, not beautiful enough to be threatening, but pretty enough to draw interest. I really felt for Evelyn though, out of necessity she kept people at arms-length, but it eventually became par for the course and so normal for her that she was unable to allow people in. The characteristics of being a spy eventually became so ingratiated that they disabled her from being a normal person again long after she had ceased to be a spy. I loved the way this was explored on such a deep and meaningful level, and it was this aspect of the novel overall that appealed to me the most and kept me enthralled. I’ve always loved novels that dive deep into their characters, turning them inside out and exposing their most inner thoughts.

‘If I were to disappear, she thought, the world would continue just as it always has. Nothing would change. I would have never made an imprint. I would never be remembered. But she also knew if she kept living like this she would disappear anyway. Dwindle, reduce, evaporate. She could already feel herself diminishing. It had been gradual, wearing her away like the sea against rock.’

The writing throughout this novel is sublime. Moments of pure poetry with stunning visualisation attached to the descriptions of emotions. While the author is not new to writing, this is her first novel, and as far as first novels go, it’s impressive and also exciting; I look forward to reading further novels by her. The Imitator is recommended to fans of literary historical fiction and lovers of thought provoking and deeply insightful novels.


Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Imitator for review.

About the Author:

Rebecca Starford is publishing director of Kill Your Darlings magazine and author of acclaimed memoir Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, which is currently in development with Matchbox Pictures for adaptation into a TV series. She lives in Brisbane with her partner and son.

The Imitator
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released 2nd February 2021

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Imitator by Rebecca Starford…

  1. Excellent review! I’ll definitely be adding this one to my list. These days I am a little bit WWII-ed out in fiction, but Starford is a brilliant writer (I found her memoir very compelling) and you’ve absolutely sold me on this novel. Thank you! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I’m not always rushing to read historical fiction, I did enjoy Starford’s memoir published a few years ago (Bad Behaviour) – it generated a lot of discussion in my book group because some book group members had attended the school in question.

    Liked by 1 person

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