A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter
This is the first novel by Walter, who has previously been known for her non-fiction including her book on feminism Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2011).
Now she has turned to fiction, and in A Quiet Life, she has based the bare outlines of her story on the life of Melinda Marling, wife of Cambridge spy Donald MacLean. All names have been changed to make it clear that this is a work of fiction, although certain events and people from the historical record naturally appear.
It’s 1939 before the war and, her family having come into some money, young twenty-something Bostonian, Laura Leverett, is to travel across the Atlantic to stay with her aunt and cousin in London.
At an impressionable age, Laura meets many people on the boat over who will crop up throughout her life. There’s fading film star Amy, American journalist Joe, and Florence.
Florence is edgy, an ardent Communist, and Laura becomes besotted with her and her way of looking at life although it is clear to us that Florence is recruiting rather than befriending Laura. Once in London, Laura stays in touch, attending a few meetings, reading a few pamphlets, when she can escape from her aunt’s stifling house.
Then she meets Edward at a party; they have a slightly strange conversation – one of those state of the nation ones:
‘The time is out of joint,’ he said as if in elaboration of his last point, and though Laura could not catch his exact meaning, she caught, or thought she did, the thought behind his words.
‘Not for everyone, though,’ she said, and a great rush of feeling ran through her as she thought of how Florence and her friends saw opportunity even in the danger, the possibility of remaking the world in these forces sweeping over Europe. ‘Not if they see the struggle on two fronts, what it means for all of us.’ The words seemed to have risen through her, and she was not aware until she had spoken them how odd they might sound in that dimly glittering room.
‘The struggle on two fronts,’ Edward repeated the words, but she could not read his expression as he did so. Clumsily, she reached for another subject, wishing that she had not said anything so political. She had spent too long with that pamphlet this afternoon.
Edward is a junior diplomat being groomed for stardom. He senses in Laura someone who will understand his more idealistic way of viewing communism. They begin a relationship and she is warned to drop Florence – working in the Foreign Office, he can’t have a girlfriend with even a hint of red.
Florence and her activist friends fade away and Edward and Laura wed. When he tells her that he is a spy for the Russians she is keen to help. Together, they put on the perfect face of a happy couple in society. Underneath, he brings home papers for her to photograph and pass on to their handlers.
This is not a short novel at nearly 450 pages, I found the first half to be particularly slow. The author is at pains to set up the quiet life of the protagonists and even Laura and Edward’s spying is often made matter of fact, every day. Laura works at maintaining her reputation as a waspish socialite, and they put up such a good façade that after the war, Edward is promoted to Washington and it is there that things begin to get on top of him. An element of real danger finally enters the story and the pace picks up – especially once the real-life spies, the Rosenbergs are caught. Throughout, the parts I most enjoyed were when Laura was meeting her handler Stefan.
The author is also at pains to labour Edward and Laura’s relationship. They have a lust for each others’ bodies, there’s plenty of sex. However, they have to be so careful in everything else, their love, if it is that, seems rather stilted – an imperfect transatlantic marriage. However you do feel sad for them when they lose their first child.
The author has succeeded in documenting, in fine detail, the quiet life of a spying couple through WWII and either side of the war years, but it really lacks pace. Even when the game is up for Edward in 1951, Laura continues on with her quiet life denying everything and it goes on and on and on. Despite this, I couldn’t put the book down although I was yelling, ‘Get on with it’ frequently in my head. Fascinating but too sloow. (7/10)
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Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine.
Natasha Walter, A Quiet Life – Borough Press, June 2016, hardback 448 pages.