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)

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)