State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny is a thoughtful thriller that puts the heart back in the White House, a review.
I could say that State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny is a political thriller about a handful of politicians and civilians who, except for their patriotism, have nothing much in common yet manage to annihilate a terrorist infiltration into the alt-right movement, a military-coup and a nuclear terrorist attack on US soil. But it is much more than that.
I could say that State of Terror is a conspiracy theory novel suspenseful at times; uproarious at others, and satisfying in the end. It is a book that for me, as a European reader, has put the heart back into the White House politics.
But it is more than that.
Ellen Adams, a widow in her late 50’s and mother of two, is the new Secretary of State. The President Elect, Douglas Williams, one month into his inauguration, is her nemesis. He dislikes (and distrusts) her for having supported his rival for party nomination, just as much as she – as a mother – loathes him. So, why he chose her? Was his bureau, which came to the White House after a bad administration, looking for a scapegoat? And why has she accepted it, even if it meant stepping down from the head of an international media empire?
The story opens with Ellen Adams, hair in disarray, mascara smudged, at the end of a twenty-two-hour day and her first failure in the eyes of the political world. The meeting in Seoul did not go as planned; rebuilding bridges with former allies after the “near-criminal” incompetence of the former US administration is an almost impossible task. And Ellen is already late for the President’s State of Union address.
What else could go wrong?
The story shifts to Pakistan where a woman flees the country to save her life. She is a PhD physicist. A man follows her at the airport and further during her flight, a white male. I hope she makes it safe, I hope she reached her destination, but who is she? Was I correct to take her side? Could she be a terrorist, after all? For bombs go off in Europe.
A third thread is brought into the story. Young Anahita Dahir at the State Department receives an email with a coded message. But Anahita was previously US Embassy staff in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan… Is this why the message was sent to her? Can she be trusted? What is she hiding?
When no terrorist organizations claim the bombs that went off in Europe, the only thread the Americans (Doug Williams, the US President, Ellen Adams his Secretary of State, General Whitehead, Tim Beecham the Director of National Intelligence) have is this coded message sent to one of their own. What does it mean? Why was it sent there? By whom? And will there be more bombs? Will they go off on American soil?
But Ellen Adams has another thread, a thin one and her only connection left with her son. And so, under the thin veil of her almost non-existent political power, for “accomplished middle-aged women were often diminished by small men,” she goes on to investigate. Aboard her government plane, the Air Force Three, and taking along only those she trusts she flies to Tehran , Iran. To Oman. To Pakistan. To Moscow. Going to the source of the evil, for time is of essence. Digging for answers. Everywhere the elusive evil lurks.
There is an old myth known by all Pakistani. That of the evil Azi Dahaka, a three headed dragon who thrives on lies and feeds out of lies and fear. Who spreads terror through the unknown it represents.
Ellen Adams soon discovers that this monster is real, and she’d met him. He poisoned her life thus far, and he’s always been nearby. In flesh and blood. Even now, while she dines with the Pakistan Prime Minister.
“How to you kill an Azi Dahak?” When he is the middleman.
There is one way to defend the evil, and that is by trusting your heart, for “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” as The Little Prince said. Can Ellen Adams the politician do it?
It appears that evil had infiltrated onto the US soil too during the years when the ex-president Dunn ”the Dumb” was ruling, when nothing mattered beyond his sphere of influence. The same president who pulled the US out of the nuclear accord with Iran. Who pulled the US troops out of Afghanistan without a plan. Without any conditions for the Taliban. While in the vacuum left radical elements, the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda, rushed in. And the Pathan family network, “the most extreme, the most brutal of the terrorists in the Pakistani-Afghan tribal area.”
When the democratic government of Afghanistan that was supported and “propped up” by the Americans left, who will fight for humans’ rights? For women’s rights? – Ellen asks.
Yet there is more… One more threat. The Russian mafia who once held a prime role in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now is back and more forceful than ever, for it has ties with the mythical Azi Dahaka. And who has Uranium.
How far has the evil, this elusive Azi Dahak, infiltrated itself? It seems to be everywhere, to be controlling everything, from Middle Eastern heads of state to the White House.
Loyalties are questioned. A son, a Chief of Staff, an Army General, the Director of National Intelligence. After all this is Washington, where “appearances were often far more powerful than reality.”
And politics, like war, is all about perception.
In State of Terror we get to experience this perception from both sides. The evil and the good. The terrorist and the terrorized. The politician and the public servant. The free Christian thinker and the Muslim traditionalist. Ellen the politician and Ellen the mother.
Ellen Adams in State of Terror
I liked Ellen a lot. Although she feels fear and doubt, she pushes through. She struggles every day with “a near enemy whispering she was not good enough. Not up to the job.” Who doesn’t do that? Projecting an image while fear lurks underneath.” Used to people underestimating her, Ellen keeps close only those few she can trust, her life-long friend and now Counselor Betsy Jameson and her daughter Katherine, now running the media empire. And her son too, a Reuters journalist, although those ties have stretched thin, very thin.
So what propels Ellen forward? Why she keeps on following the thin thread to the heart of the evil? “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep…” (John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields’). Because she feels that she owes it to the innocent victims of the bombings, and to all the soldiers who died, to follow through, to eradicate the evil and find the truth. Eventually, Ellen even manages to turn enemies into friends.
Idealistic, I know, but this is fiction, fairy-tale for grownups, isn’t it?
Allegories, play on words and travel in State of Terror
I loved some of the allegories that enriched the read: Gilgamesh and the Lion; the burqa lying on the couch like a human body outline left after the Hiroshima bombing; the coded messages and linguistic game on words between Ellen and Betsy (“An oxymoron walked into a bar… And the silence was deafening.”) The visit to the eleven thousand years old cave paintings from Iran that show the same horses that the indigenous people of North America rode.
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,John Donne
For I have more.
I enjoyed the inner knowledge, like flying with Ellen aboard the Air Force Three, her government jet. Learning about the various house rules that apply to politicians, even the Secretary of State. And I’ll never forget what the Foggy Bottom is. Who the Five Eyes are. The Mahogany Row. The belly of the American Embassy in Frankfurt. The Oman’s Sultan palace. The conundrum of the Secretary’s Dilemma…
Characters from State of Terror
Some characters were hilarious to pinpoint, like ex-president Eric the Dumb, or the British Prime Minister Bellington, “his hair askew, as always.”
Others will remain close to my heart like Betsy Jameson, Ellen’s best friend, their friendship going back as far as grade 1. Betsy is a colourful, all heart, brains and devotion friend, an ex-English teacher who “seemed to have swallowed Bette Midler.”. We all have a friend like her in our lives, someone unafraid and reliable at any time of the day, no matter what, and with a vocabulary that would even win the admiration of an ex-SEAL.
State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny – behind the title
The idea of state of terror (as well as war of terror and balance of terror) appears a few time throughout the book. Each time with different significance. And it made me wonder which one was meant for the title.
The President of the United States acknowledges (well, to himself) that, with a green administration and the heap of consequences inherited from the previous administration, he’s out of his depth and in a state of terror.
A state of terror could also represent what the countries where the all-evil Azi Dahak already rules will soon become – for their citizens.
And a state of terror could very well be what a great nation, Ellen Adam’s one, could be reduced to under the constant fear of another, and yet another terrorist attack. After willingly and unknowingly giving up its freedoms and rights for an illusive and elusive future as promised by the charismatic evil Azi Dahak. The state of terror that Ellen Adams fights against.
Remembering State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny
What I will take with me from State of Terror is that hate has no hold. It appears when terror strikes. Courage and love, on the other side, can punch hate to the ground and can make even a state of terror fall apart.
I found this read satisfying because Ellen Adams appears as the weak link in a weak chain, but she uses these appearances to her advantage and manages to overthrow the evil, “the thing in the closet. The thing under the bed. The thing down the dark alley,” – even when the evil walks through the front door of the White House, invited in.
I chose to read this book, first and foremost, because it was written by two female writers I was not familiar with.