Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson likes to have fun with her readers. Likes to play games with them. In this case, she tells the story of Juliet Armstrong who takes on a job during World War II of transcribing the conversations of British fellow travelers who think they are plotting in hehalf of Hitler, whereas the British government is actually following every move they make.

But Juliet is an unprepossessing 18-year-old who likes to poke fun at herself and at others, and she regards her assignment as a kind of lark. It is also an interesting assignment on the fringes of espionage. But when the war ends, her adventures turn much darker, and she is beseiged by unreliable protagonists on all sides. Indeed, these men are not the reliable government agents she once thought. And she becomes not the innocent teenager.

The result is a novel that confused this reader, and that confounded many a reviewer. For we, and they, were no longer reading the story we once thought we were. And we began asking ourselves if this was a legitimate way to tell a story of espionage in World War II. Because, first of all, it challenges our interpretation of the young girl through whose viewpoint we are witnessing this story. Of course, we must also admit that an espionage story by its own nature is deceptive. So we ask why can this story not be one as well?

Indeed, deception seems to be the point of this novel. Deception of and by the British government, as well as deception of the reader. And yet, despite all the deception, I found this novel to be a delight to read, not least because of Juliet’s clever, often spiteful, always provocative comments about her own unfulfilled romantic desires as well as her clever perception of the foibles of those she encounters. This also helps us to identify with her, with her cleverness. There is even a bit of adventure among upper class Nazi sympathizers when Juliet is forced into deceiving her hosts and escape being discovered by shinnying down a vine outside a bedroom window.

Our interest is further developed by three plot developments. The first comes five years after the war. Juliet’s assignment has ended, of course, and she recognizes in the street a man she once worked for; but he denies ever knowing her. Why, we are asked to ponder. The second event takes place when a Nazi woman sympathizer accidentally discovers the government’s effort to entrap her and her Nazi friends, and is brutally murdered lest she betray the plot. What will be the repercussions of that? And the last is a mysterious note to Juliet that says, in effect, ‘you will pay for what you did.” Who is it who sent the note, how threatening should Juliet take it, and what is the “it” she will be paying for?

And then we see Juliet in a whole new light, when a mysterious gentleman invades her premises at the end and reveals to us her true character. She has been too clever by half, as they say. And equally so has the author. We thus feel betrayed by both the character we have come so close to and by the author who has lead us so astray.

Which makes one ask: how legitimate are these surprise endings when they totally reverse the hero or heroine’s character? Yes, such surprises play a role in the real world of espionage, but how legitimate are they in the world of fiction?

Lisa Allardice buys into this in her review in The Observer, “Atkinson is too accomplished and careful a writer,” she says, “for [such literary maneuvering] to be sloppiness.” And “Juliet’s knowing riffs on [espionage] cliché and metaphor suggest” this. She even adds: “Terms such as ‘postmodern’ and ‘metafiction’ seem far too heavy for novels a enjoyable as Atkinson’s…[who has long] been chipping away at the fourth wall, micheviously drawing attention to her craft.” She cites as another example Atkinson’s heroine Ursula in Life After Life, who continually dies and is continually resurrected.

In an Author’s Note, Atkinson writes that the plot of this novel is based on reality. There was a real person, Eric Roberts, who pretended to be a Gestapo agent in England and who worked with British Fascists to identify Nazi sympathizers. And transcripts of his meetings with them do exist. But once the author discoveed that fact, she says,“ I went ahead and invented whatever I liked….If I had to describe the process, I would say it felt like a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.”

Allardice defends all this literary maneuvering and trickery in The Observer. “Some readers might find [this novel] slight rather than clever slight of hand, but Atkinson always puts on a damn fine show. As Juliet is told, never forget the first rule of espionage: ‘If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one.’”

If there is one weakness to the novel, it is in the characterizatons of the variety of Juliet’s male supervisors. It is often difficult to tell them apart, for they represent their government role in this complex story rather than become  a distinct character who ejoys human relationships. But is not that often the function of characters in an espionage novel?

The complexity of this espionage story does make me wonder about my interest in future work by this author. What will interest me is an imaginative use of structure, and the new perspective time might bring. But, please, no similar deception of the reader. (December, 2019)

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

This 2013 work is a strange novel, a marvelous novel, a puzzling novel. As the title suggests, it is about its heroine Ursula Todd dying and then not dying. It is also about premonitions she has, as a child, about others dying, and her efforts to prevent that from happening. Her parents send her to a psychiatrist at age ten, a man who introduces the idea of reincarnation, which Ursula and the reader rejects, for reincarnation does not apply precisely to her situation. But the psychiatrist also introduces the idea of the circularity of time, and while this does not fit Ursula’s life, it does fit the construction of this novel.

Ursula is the daughter of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, he a doting father, she a snobbish mother. Ursula has an older brother Maurice, aloof and supercilious; an older sister Pamela who is bossy as a child but becomes Ursula best friend as an adult; and younger brothers Teddy, who is her favorite brother and will join the air force, and Jimmy, less significant, who will leave England after the war. They represent the strong base of this novel, an upper middleclass family that represents the heart of English society.

But the reality of this family shifts from the moment Ursula is born. Because Ursula dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord, but then does not. She falls off a roof and dies, but then does not. Influenza kills her and a faithful servant, but then does not. A neighborhood girl is raped and killed, but then, with Ursula’s help, is not. Ursala herself is killed in the World War II, but then is not. What is going on here? It is not easy to determine, for the author jumps back and forth in time as she blends Ursula’s disruptive life and modern British history.

Then come three dramatic moments that do not seem to belong, that even seem a misjudgment by the author. First, Ursula is raped at age sixteen, by an American who seems to exist only to be a tool of the author. And she becomes pregnant. But that life is replaced by another, in which Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher. She flees, but he tracks her down and attacks both her and her brother Teddy. Darkness falls, which is the repeated sign of her dying, but we never read the consequences of that attack, not on Teddy and not on the schoolteacher. The event fades into non-existence.

Then, in an alternate life, Ursula meets a boy on a visit to Germany, falls in love, and remains in Germany throughout World War II. Here, Atkinson suggests, through Ursula and her alternate self, parallels between how one experiences the bombing of Berlin and how one experiences the bombing of London. Indeed, the London blitz scenes are the most memorable in the book—and not simply because Ursula dies once in a cellar, then dies while trying to save people in that cellar, and finally lives on when a dog’s presence, which led to her second death, now leads to her survival.

And at this point, this reader realized two things. Atkinson was through this one family trying to convey mid-twentieth century English history; and, even more important, she was dramatizing how a single event, a single decision in one’s life, can change that life dramatically. (Do I subscribe to this because my marriage, my own life, was so changed?) There is at the end even an explanation for a mysterious opening scene, in which Ursula seems poised in 1930 to kill Adolf Hitler—with speculation about how that could have changed modern European history.

At the end of her novel, the author attempts to tidy up her many divergent stories. Just as “Darkness fell” heralds the frequent deaths of Ursula, “Practice makes perfect” heralds some of these reversals of death. A near-death experience of Ursula at the beach had followed her actual death, and now this event is tidied up by becoming the drowning of the handicapped and illegitimate child of her Aunt Izzy. Or is this an example of a past drama altering one’s memory? In fact, which event is real? Then Ursula tells a lie to save the family servant Bridget from going to London to catch influenza and die with her lover Clarence. (Ursula, in one instance, had failed to achieve this when she pushed the girl down some stairs.) This recapitulation is also when the psychiatrist asks ten-year-old Ursula to draw something, and she draws a snake swallowing its tail—representing, he says, “the circularity of the universe.” Aha!

This section is also when we learn Ursula is a good shooter, which hearkens back to her confrontation with Hitler (although not how she got in that situation). We also learn why a neighbor Nancy died on one level, due to Ursula’s actions, as earlier we learned why she did not die, also due to Ursula’s actions. Finally, the novel has a happy ending in its next-to-last chapter, an ending that seems unnecessary. A character everyone thinks has died in the war has not died, and is reunited with a lover. Yes, it illustrates the uncertainty of life, as well as of war, but it seems unnecessary—mainly, I think, because we never see the consequences of that return to life.

Speaking of circularity, there are also the dogs in the life of Ursula and her family. They keep dying and then being replaced. Not always, but many are also given the name of Lucky. Their dying and “rebirth” as another dog surely is intended as a parallel to both Ursula’s shifting life and the novel’s construction.

A major plus of this novel, which helps the reader accept this English version of magic realism is Atkinson’s style. It is reminiscent of Muriel Spark, and early Waugh, in its clear, aloof, arbitrary, witty, godlike treatment of the lives and the fates of these characters. Not to be overlooked, either, are the relationships established among the many characters, whether within Ursula’s family, including with her naughty Aunt Izzy, with the family servants, or with Ursula’s various lovers, air wardens, and German friends, even Eva Braun.

This is one of those rare novels in which I did not mind trying to puzzle out Ursula’s life, the reality of its events, or the meaning of this novel. Nor was I frustrated that the novel offered no clear answers. Not why her power to foresee calamity faded after childhood. Not why she has the power to die and return. And not what the power of recreating history means.

This was for Atkinson, I believe, an exercise in the imagination. What if one could die and come back? What if one could affect the lives of others? What might a novelist do with that? Atkinson has seemed interested in her other novels with the idea of connections. Here, the connection is with destiny. Not, what happens to us after death, but what if our destiny in life changes, or what if we could affect that change.

As Francine Prose sums up in her excellent Times review: “Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final.”

Atkinson herself has written: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection, perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.”

Atkinson has explained that she was born after World War II, and her family rarely discussed that era; but that she intended here to write a novel about that war. And that the “dark, bleeding heart” of that novel would be the blitz. In this she certainly succeeded, because the lengthy treatment of Ursula’s work as an air warden is the most memorable section of this work. But Atkinson also realized that in order to write about someone in the war she had to give her a back story—which in this case turned out to be the heart of the novel. And its theme of worldly life after worldly death certainly reflects the wishful thinking that takes place after any war—as one recalls its senseless and horrible death toll.

One should also note that Atkinson’s next novel, A God in Ruins, is to be about Ursula’s brother Teddy, who is shot down during World War II. He was Ursula’s favorite brother, and apparently of the author as well. One awaits learning whether Atkinson will explore that war further, or whether she has something else in mind—even, again, the theme of endless death. Indeed, one wonders if a final, incongruous appearance of Teddy in this novel was written in order to set up this next 2015 work. One also wonders if the word God in the title has any significance. It would seem doubtful, based on the spiritual beliefs held in this novel. But…

To sum up, this is a novel about life, not about death. And a novel about this world, not the next. It works because of its solid family portrait and its vivid capture of the historic context, including but not limited to World War II. It certainly entices me to read more of Atkinson’s work. For the degree of control she has over her characters, which turned me off in Case Histories, here she uses to her advantage, as she integrates it into the structure of this excellent work. (February, 2015)