Reading between the lines?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

I really must not wait so long to write my reviews. This was the first book I read in 2019! The good thing is it was such a good book, unlike other lesser fare, I haven’t forgotten what it was all about quite yet. However so many of my blog friends have written so eloquently about it already (links below), I’ll keep my thoughts fairly succinct.

Wartime and Juliet Armstrong gets picked from the ministry typing pool to have an interview for MI5. Miles Morton, interviewing her asks:

‘If you had to choose, which would you be – a Communist or a Fascist?’

‘It’s not much of a choice, is it, sir?’

‘You have to choose. There’s a gun to your head.’

‘I could choose to be shot.’ (Who was holding the gun, she wondered?)

‘No, you couldn’t. You have to choose one or the other.’

Communism, it seemed to Juliet, was a kinder doctrine. ‘Fascism,’ she bluffed. He laughed. […]

He put out his hand and she realized that he was waiting for her to shake it. ‘I’m sure Miss Dicker will run her eye over your bona fides and so on and get you all signed up to the Official Secrets Act.’

Did she have the job then? Was that it?

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You had the job before you walked in the door, Miss Armstrong. I just needed to ask the right questions. To be reassured that you are honourable and upright. And so on.’

Soon she is set up in a flat in Pimlico, under her boss Peregrine (Perry) Gibbons. Her job is to transcribe the conversations recorded in the flat next door. Godfrey Toby is working deep undercover posing as a Gestapo agent. He meets loads of mostly working class fifth columnists there to keep an eye on their activities and encourage them to share.

As you might guess, no-one is quite whom them seem, and we already know that Juliet is happy to lie. Atkinson cleverly builds layer upon layer of obfuscation in a sort of opposite way to Life After LIfe (reviewed here) in which practice made a kind of perfect, so that when events come to a head, it’s a real surprise. But there’s no resolution then – we cut to ten years later. Juliet is now working at the BBC for the children’s school radio service, and again she’s often rewriting history for the programmes. A chance encounter with someone from her past will jolt her from her comfy position into decisive action, taking us in yet another surprising direction.

There is plenty of humour in Atkinson’s story-telling, from the nod to James Bond in Juliet’s encounter with the fourth daughter of a duke smoking her Pa’s Morland hand-rolled cigarettes (Bond favoured their ‘Balkan blend’) to a presenter on a schools radio programme leaving his microphone on so that all the children listening heard him swear. I did love Atkinson’s affectionate portrayal of the postwar BBC. Juliet is a fun protagonist, northern, efficient and no-nonsense, liked by all, yet longing for real excitement. On the rare occasions that it comes, she relishes the transformation she must effect, to become a slightly different, transcribed version of herself.

I do think I will need to read this book again to absorb all the nuances and layers of betrayal – and I’m glad I can read my flamingo pink edged and beribboned signed first edition (which was an indie bookshop exclusive). A definite contender for one of my books of the year!

Read also reviews by: Clare, Susan, Harriet for Shiny, Eleanor, Chris at Calmgrove.

Source: Own copy. BUY from Amazon UK below – pre-order the paperback out in March (affiliate link)

20 thoughts on “Reading between the lines?

  1. Laura says:

    Still can’t decide whether to read this or not. As you know, I wasn’t a fan of Life After Life and there’s something about Atkinson’s blend of humour and seriousness that never quite works for me (except in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which I loved!) But the blurb sounds so interesting, especially the bit about working at BBC children’s radio.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I came early to Atkinson and didn’t enjoy Behind the Scenes… and then didn’t read any of hers until Life After Life which I rather adored! The humour and seriousness works so well together in this one though Laura, I’d love to see what you make of it.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Another excellent review, Annabel, I loved your picking out the deadpan humour and parodic Bond references. If anything, your review brought out something I’d not picked up on before, and certainly not in my review, namely how visual the novel is. Anyone wanting to adapt this for TV (a BBC serial? That would be delicious!) would have most of their work done for them.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for the link, Annabel. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I don’t care how many literary judges fail to shortlist Atkinson, she’s still one of the smartest writers we have as far as I’m concerned.

  4. heavenali says:

    This sounds excellent. I am never sure if I like Atkinson as much as everyone else seems to. I read a couple of her early novels which I quite liked, really enjoyed the Jackson Brodie novels, but hated the thought (never read a word so I know this is unfair) of Life after Life and the sequel. This sounds compelling though, a definite maybe.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It sounds like you’ve given her a fair go Ali. If Life After Life doesn’t appeal, don’t bother with it. This one is clever in a different linear way.

  5. Café Society says:

    I thought this was a really good read, but not vintage Atkinson. For me in tone it sat somewhere uneasily between her more serious books and the Jackson Brodie novels and I was never quite sure how to take it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I haven’t read much of her, so I loved it – and I do love a streak of humour in my spy thrillers (viz: Mick Herron).

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