I’m feeling quite accomplished, because I’ve read, or not read for a reason, all the NetGalley books I had won that are published in February (of course, I went and won another one during the month but …). I have finished “A Million Aunties” but you’ll have to wait for my review until after my Larry McMurtry, I think. Anyway, here we go with this fascinating non-fiction book that I must remember to pair with its fictional counterpart during the relevant week in Non-Fiction November this year …

Donna McLean – “Small Town Girl”

(1 December 2021 – NetGalley)

I had been aware of the SpyCops scandal, in which undercover police officers infiltrated activist groups in the UK systematically and eroded members’ human rights by lying to them, spying on them, forming relationships with them and even fathering children with them (as far as I know, all the police officers were male), but I hadn’t read anything about it until I was offered Alice O’Keeffe’s novel “Skylark” to read by the publisher. That was brilliant and fascinating but I was glad this non-fiction account caught my eye: in fact, reading it has also shown what great work O’Keeffe did in putting together bits and bobs from different women’s experiences in her novel.

This isn’t one of the early, main works on the scandal. In fact, McLean didn’t realise that her ex, Carlo, was a SpyCop until old activist friends got in touch and told her – the fact that they, all men, had suspected for three years but not advise her is pulled out and examined when she forms a tight support group with other women who were abused in this way. We then follow her path through putting all her memories and evidence together, joining in one of the big court cases and fighting for an apology and compensation, her lawyer the excellent Harriet Wistrich. Sometimes it’s a bit disjointed as she follows various memories or talks to friends and family but it’s well-written and easy to follow.

As well as a narrative of the events in her and Carlo’s life and the subsequent investigation, McLean brings various skills to the table which add to the book and give it depth. She’s a therapist who works with trauma and addiction and she’s very good at demonstrating the physical reactions she has to aspects of the process, and also at explaining how it affects her own work as a group therapy leader and her relationships with her mother, sister and daughters. She is also good at pen portraits, bringing the other characters alive, and she really gets across the support and care of the group of affected women that forms, sharing their joy as well as their pain as they go on writing retreats. In addition, she’s able to bring in the wider context very effectively: the blacklisting of unionised and activist construction workers and the shocking infiltration of the Stephen Lawrence campaign for justice, which I hadn’t known about.

An important and also readable book that I recommend.