Written by Kate Atkinson
Published by Little Brown and Company (2018)
ISBN: 031617663X (ISBN13: 9780316176637) Literary Award: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2018). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes layout via iPhone app.
While this is my first Atkinson novel, I have heard of her and have a few of her older novels stacked in my Book Depository Wish List. As this is her most recent novel, I thought that I may as well get to know her writing through this spy novel featuring a female protagonist.
The story’s timeline moves back and forth from 1981, then 1940, and 1950. While it could have been confusing, it seemed cinematic and effective to me. London is at war – and there are enemies everywhere: from within and without. People’s allegiances (not to mention predilections) are subject to close scrutiny, second-guessing, and further examination.
Juliet Armstrong is the voice of the entire novel: self-deprecating, brilliant but in an understated and unexpected way, gently mocking and seemingly-naive.
Admittedly, I found the first few sections to drag a fair bit, despite moments of levity that made me laugh out loud – making me grateful that I borrowed this copy from the library instead of purchasing it outright. However, as the story progressed, things became a little more immersive – especially when Juliet Armstrong started reinventing herself to become Iris Carter-Jenkins, an MI5 agent – which is definitely a step-up from being merely a typist or his boss’ girl, transcribing the clandestine conversations of Nazi sympathizers in the room next door, bugged for just this very purpose.
As I now reflect on the novel, I begin to wonder whether Juliet’s predisposition towards self-mockery (she is not averse to mocking other people too, often in her mind, but other times in conversations – only gradually determined if they are astute enough to realize that she is indeed making fun of them) is her way of establishing a sense of agency, at a time when the entire city is in turmoil, and the landscape shifts every so often, depending on the winds of war. The sense of humour is more wry rather than truly mirthful, always with a sense of a vacuum being filled, but never quite getting there. The quote below is an example of this gentle sarcasm that is not really spiteful, just sharp and dry:
It is this voice that saved the pace of the novel for me. I also especially appreciated the candid observations about women and their place during the war:
The ending of this novel is refreshingly unexpected – and makes one applaud and question the entire concept of the reliable/unreliable narrator. While a niggling part of me wants to re-read it immediately given that twist, the length and the pace are quite discouraging. Regardless, I enjoyed reading this British novel of female spies, double agents, and reinventing one’s self during times of war.
#WomenReadWomen2019: Lucia Berlin is from the United States of America.