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‘State of Terror’ by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny Reminds Me of the Jataka Tale of ‘The Mighty Lion and the Clever Mouse’

‘State of Terror’ by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny Reminds Me of the Jataka Tale of ‘The Mighty Lion and the Clever Mouse’

  • Kudos to the magnificent ladies for climbing out of their personal abyss and writing a geopolitical thriller.

“Two oxymorons walked into a bar and John Dunn’s plot thickened.”

I am a huge fan of Louise Penny. Her take on life, her writing style. Succinct. Brief yet infused with emotion and poetry. I have religiously read all of her books, from “Still Life” to “The Madness of Crowds.” 

When life seems stormy inside or out, my go-to book is an Inspector Gamache whodunnit. Penny’s character development in the familiar setting always draws me into the plot. The quaint fictional town of “Three Pines.” The old-world sense of community. Mouthwatering, hearty Quebecois cuisine offers a nice backdrop to all her mysteries. 

The uncanny camaraderie of a seemingly obtuse poet, a world-class artist, a gourmet chef, a grocer, a bookstore owner, a talking duck, children and dogs. A motley crew of amateur sleuths who leave no stone unturned in helping Inspector Gamache and his forensics team in solving many local and international crimes.  

“State of Terror” is Penny’s first collaborative work with Secretary Hilary Clinton. Clinton and Penny are friends. Hillary Dianne Clinton (née Rodham) who served as the 67th United States Secretary of State is a seasoned politician, lawyer and public speaker. She has published seven books but this is her first novel. 

This book project created a lot of buzz when it was announced because both authors are a treasure trove of political information and literary craft. I waited anxiously for my turn to get the book from my public library in Madison Alabama. When I held this Simon & Schuster publication in my hand, my heart trembled in anticipation of the secrets that lay in the 512 pages of this attractive hardbound volume with an ominous front cover and pictures of the two “mighty dame” on the back. 

I have a busy day job but the moment I opened the book, the fetters of time and commitment cascaded away from my desk clock. I was fully immersed in the storyline. With every fictional character I tried to uncover real-life politicians. And believe me, there were many. 

The protagonist Ellen Adams, the former owner of a media empire finds herself unexpectedly elected as the secretary of state in the cabinet of U.S. President Williams (she did not vote for him). She makes her appearance in a creased pant-suit, disheveled hair and mascara running, disembarking from a failed diplomatic trip to Korea.

Williams is postured to use this failed mission to finish Ellen’s career but Ellen keeps her wits about her. Williams tries to convince the American people that his administration will repair the fulminant damage done by Eric Dunn, his predecessor but the whole world is reeling from the consequences of previous political miscalculations. 

A group of Pakistani nuclear scientists are killed by bus bombings in London and Paris. A State Department aide, Anahita Dahir (of Irani descent) receives a cryptic message but dismisses it as spam. She makes a copy of the message, believing that it might be written by her ex Gil Bahar. 

Gil is a freelance journalist and happens to be Ellen’s estranged son, previously kidnapped by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. Now the plot thickens and numerous odds are stacked against Ellen. But she is a pro. She retaliates with the mental agility of a journalist and the courage of a widowed mother. 

When she gets intel that the terrorist plot is wielded by a nuclear power broker/villain Bashir Shah, she propels into action. From one night flight to another on Air Force Three, the middle-aged secretary of state, by the dint of her wisdom, trusted confidantes and feline sixth sense, plays a deadly game with her time, energy and her life. She even risks the safety of her own aides and children to save her nation and citizens of the world from the ominous threat of global terrorism. 

The book is fast-paced and in chasing the villain, the reader is always in the head of Adams as she meets presidents, dictators, sultans and evil puppet heads-of-state (playing to the right-wing ideology of hate). 

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She uncovers stealth and skullduggery with the help of her “candy-crush” playing trusted advisor Betsy Jameson (modeled after a real-life friend of Clinton). The story is laced with political intrigue and good old Agatha Christie-like motives, suspects and red herrings. The pendulum of doubt swings between the professorial General Whitehead, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Tim Beecham, the Director of National Intelligence. It is difficult to tell who wrote what, because the narrative is stitched seamlessly.

I love the recurring quote by poet John Dunn, “Thou hast not done, for I have more.” And the insane closeness of Bashir Shah to Ellen as she talks to the Ayatollah in his humongous black turbans, sinks her face into a bouquet of fragrant sweetpeas, or hovering in dark among the ancient cave paintings of Balochistan. 

Although, I would love to ask them who thought about adding the aroma of fried fish to the state banquet held in Islamabad. Because my nose and taste buds are still tingling in anticipation of the similar fresh fish fry I had in Punjab as a child. Food creates nostalgia and transports the reader more effortlessly than other tedious descriptions. 

“State of Terror” came in the wake of two great losses for the authors. Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to a real estate-media mogul and Penny lost her beloved husband Michael Whitehead in 2016. They decided to craft a book together in spa-like settings but then the COVID pandemic happened. But this did not deter their confidence. 

The book project continued and was released on October 12, 2021. Kudos to the magnificent ladies for climbing out of their personal abyss and writing a geopolitical thriller. It is an important lesson to learn from two strong women. Keep working. Keep forging new alliances. Keep writing. A must-read. Almost seems like a retelling of the ancient Jataka tale of “The Mighty Lion and the Clever Mouse.”

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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