“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel,”
“But then, what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”
Kate Atkinson is such a pleasure to read!
Here, she conjures up Juliet, a young orphan summoned to an interview at the Secret Service in 1940 and “the summons was on government notepaper so she supposed she would have to obey it.” A clerical position in MI5 – this is no James Bond novel! – awaits her and she is quickly whisked into Peregrine (“Call me Perry”) Gibbons work of containing Fifth columnist Nazi sympathisers in Britain. Rather than rounding them up and imprisoning them, the plan was to feed them a fake deep cover Gestapo agent in the form of Godfrey Toby – letting them plot and plan and conspire with him, safely within a “walled garden”, incriminating themselves and others with incessant talk and chatter, gossip and bigotry.
And Juliet’s job? To transcribe their conversations which are, for the most part, deeply dull and tedious. Occasionally chilling in their mundane bigotry, hatred and casual espousal of violence.
18.00 Arrival. GODFREY, TRUDE and BETTY present.
Social chat and commenting on the weather.
GODFREY commented on BETTY’S cold (resulting in an unfortunate loss of her voice).
There was some talk about a friend of BETTY’S called PATRICIA (or LETITIA?) who lives near the docks in Portsmouth and how that could be useful.
TRUDE. A friend to us?
BETTY. Very much to our way of thinking. I said she should get a job in a pub. She used to work in one, she got experience when she was in Guildford.
TRUDE. The pubs in Portsmouth are full of sailors.
GODFREY. Yes, yes.
TRUDE. And dockworkers. A couple of drinks and they’ll tell you anything probably.
BETTY. Movement of the fleet (?) and so on.
The doorbell rings. GODFREY leaves the room to answer it. A lot of commotion in the hall.
BETTY. (whispering, partly inaudible) How much do you think this place costs the Gestapo?
TRUDE. At least three guineas a week, I imagine. I’ve seen them advertised. (four or five words inaudible due to BETTY’S coughing)
GODFREY returns with DOLLY.
GODFREY. Here’s Dolly.
Some conversation about the weather. Some abusive chat about the portrait of the King on the wall.
GODFREY. How’s NORMA? (NORMAN?)
DOLLY. The same. Not much help to us I don’t think. She’s being married at Easter. To CAPTAIN BARKER.
GODFREY. And he’s against …?
DOLLY. Yes. At Virginia Water. You look peaky (?)
BETTY. It’s all the coughing (??) and strain (??)
There is something wonderful in the transcript sections of the novel which open many of the 1940 chapters. There is no escaping the mundane inanity of it: Dolly and Betty are so wonderfully middle class and privileged and blinkered that the sting of their intentions is easy to lose. And somehow Atkinson injects a lyrical rhythm and lilt with it – it certainly carries an authentic cadence and few writers have an ear for dialogue like Atkinson – all underpinned by the personality of the transcriber frustrated by inaudible mutterings and coughings littering the text with hesitations, question marks and slightly bored summations.
And this is so much Juliet’s story! And she is wonderful! So painfully naive in 1940, her interactions with her colleagues are undercut by a wonderfully biting commentary which is both self aware and self deprecating – and beautifully, understatedly funny! Anticipating a romantic liaison with Perry Gibbons which never happens, much to her frustration and relief, she is hilarious:
Any romantic notions she may have been fostering had been entirely numbed by cold and hunger. He was currently expounding on the regurgitating habits of owls. ‘Fur and bone of voles and mice,’ he said, and she thought of the witches in Macbeth and she laughed and responded with, ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog.’
‘Well, yes,’ he said, perplexed by the allusion. ‘Frogs – and rats – are occasionally found in their pellets. Shrews are common. You can identify the different species by their jawbones.’ He had no Shakespeare, she realized.
He had no Shakespeare – what a damning technique, especially from someone named Juliet! And for Atkinson who is such a literary writer who loves her literary allusions and quotations!
they often performed an awkward little dance around their small office to avoid touching at all, as if Juliet were a desk or a chair, not a girl in her prime. It seemed that she had acquired all the drawbacks of being a mistress and none of the advantages – like sex. (She was becoming bolder with the word, if not the act.) For Perry, it seemed to be the other way round – he had all the advantages of having a mistress and none of the drawbacks. Like sex.
We are as the reader the only people aware of this quiet interiority within Juliet – this is a character with layers upon layers, and even with layers hidden from the reader – and some possibly hidden from herself – until the very end. In a spy narrative, how can one trust anyone who clothes themselves in false names and identities? How easy is it to get lost in these identities?
And Juliet did adopt a number of them: I loved her willing participation in the more active agent work in 1940 which brought a little more tension to the novel and which she adapted to chameleon-like. I love her temptation to view herself as the heroine of a Girls Own adventure story full of invisible ink, secret Red Books to be uncovered and miniature pistols. At least until the lies pile up and the the brutality of the world she is infiltrating starts to crystallise. Her kleptomania, her anguish, her humanity and empathy, her game playing are all adeptly worked in together, alongside her naivety.
Whilst Juliet never really feels fully known, she is a delight and carries this novel in the same way that Ursula Todd does in Life After Life. I did wonder whether the two would meet at any point -which would have been fantastic! – but that never materialised!
Atkinson does not skimp on her more minor characters either: the Fifth Columnists, Godfrey Toby, Perry Gibbons, the man in the astrakhan-collared coat, Mrs Scaife… they are all flawed authentic and vibrant vital characters. And all of them are wrapped up in disguises and performance and deception in different ways – Perry’s hidden homosexuality is one of the more obvious ones – and the novel is a celebration of (or perhaps a warning about) our inability to every fully know each other, or perhaps ourselves.
The novel has an interesting structure: would we expect anything else from Kate Atkinson? For me the 1940s are the core of the novel, but we have to travel to get to them because the novel begins in 1980 with Juliet as an elderly woman knocked down by a car; we then shift to the 1950s where in post-war London Juliet is working for the BBC and bumps into Godfrey Toby; and finally that meeting shifts us to the war. We do return to the 1950s too as Juliet – wiser and dryer perhaps – succumbs to what may be paranoia and may be rational fear in an unseasonably foggy London – a fog of obfuscation – in which she fears that retribution for some heinous act in 1940 (hitherto hidden from the reader) will be visited on her.
It is complex, clever – oh so clever – and deftly structured!
And as an historical novel, the insertion of real historical truths with fictional creations is so wonderfully judged and subtle – I loved Clarissa, whom I took to be a Mitford sister for a while with a sister called Pamela and “Pa” being a Duke. It is a novel of subtly shifting sands, where identity and truth and honesty are so difficult to pin down – with so much fog and shadow and darkness in the setting, and performances and actors and plays alluded to throughout – as difficult for the characters and the readers. With a delicious and warm mischievousness on Kate Atkinson’s part.
Oh if only all writers were as good as Kate Atkinson!
She is also very good at aphorisms – many of which are taken more seriously by the characters than I think the reader should take them, not dissimilarly to the aphorisms that Polonius delivers to Laertes in Hamlet:
Do not equate nationalism with patriotism… Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism…
The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel…
Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war…
Being flippant was harder work than being earnest…
Oh dear, most of this review seems to be quoting from the book… but then it is such a great book that I can do no better than to deliver snippets of it up to you!
So I shall finish with one of my favourites, courtesy of Juliet:
She sometimes wondered if there was some emptiness inside that she was trying to fill, but, really, she suspected that she was just hungry a lot.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 352
Date: 6th September 2018