You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt's captivating debut novel, brings to mind EM Forster's famous quote about loyalty: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." It is a study of friendship and its parameters, with particular emphasis on the energising or enervating effects of trust and betrayal. Forster's line suggests a one-or-the-other binary, but Holt's characters leave friends and countries high and dry in exchange for loftier goals and worthier political causes. Moral dilemmas alternate with sly perfidies. We read, we're gripped, and find ourselves contemplating a stream of searching questions: When is lying justified? To what, if anything, should we pledge allegiance? And can we forgive best friends everything?
Holt's protagonist, Sarah Zuckerman, is a shy, gauche 10-year-old in 1980s Washington, DC. She would be lonely, too, were it not for her popular and charismatic best friend, Jennifer Jones. The Cold War is at its iciest, the nuclear brinkmanship between the United States and Soviet Union most keenly felt by Sarah's mother, a stress-case riven by anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Terrified by her mother's premonitions of impending doom, Sarah decides to write to Yuri Andropov and plead for détente. Jenny copies her, penning a letter too, and both girls are amazed when she gets a reply. Sarah's letter goes unanswered. Jenny's is published in Pravda and the western news media goes wild. Jenny accepts the Kremlin's invitation to visit the USSR and is swiftly transformed into an international media starlet - a peace ambassador and a Soviet propaganda tool. Fame eventually spoils Jenny, Sarah is sidelined and the friendship is fraught, then founders. Just as Sarah starts to contemplate life without her friend, Jenny and her parents are killed in a plane crash.
So runs the first section of the novel, the bulk of it told in flashback, with Sarah's happy nostalgic memories becoming tainted then overshadowed by failure and loss. The second and last part takes place in Moscow 10 years later. We switch gears and change direction from a tale of youthful travails to one powered by and paced with mystery and intrigue. Sarah has received a letter out of the blue from a Russian girl called Svetlana who met Jenny all those years ago on her visit, and who now claims her death was a hoax. Sarah trades Washington, "a swampy city of wonks", for the Soviet capital, "a furtive city", its inhabitants "as closed and guarded as fists", in search of the truth. Despite feeling small and alienated, she identifies with the Russians' "predilection for the tragic"; "Surely this was a place where I wouldn't have to apologise for not being happy all the time?" We accompany her as she ingratiates herself with Svetlana and other natives, and mingles with a hotchpotch expat crowd. But her most significant contact is with the enigmatic Zoya. Could she be Jenny? And if so, what is she doing in Moscow? Most important of all, why did she fake her death?