Read by Fenella Woolgar
Published September 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever.
Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.
Let’s just start with the reading, shall we? Fenella Woolgar is marvelous and deserves to be recognized and if I wait to tell you about here until the end, you might have already stopped reading. This is the second of Atkinson’s books that I’ve listened to her read and, while I’m certain I would have been impressed with the books in print, Woolgar’s reading adds so much to the books. So much so that I’ve placed a hold on Tracy Chevalier’s latest, A Single Thread, for the sole reason that Woolgar is reading it.
Now, on to the story.
“Juliet had stopped going to that school, stopped preparing for that bright future, so that she could care for her mother—there had always been only the two of them—and had not returned after her mother’s death. It seemed impossible somehow. . . . That girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.”Without any attachments, Julia is just the kind of girl MI5 is looking for. Young, naïve, and alone, she is easily scooped up into the world of espionage. Initially recruited into the secretarial pool, Julia is soon part of a “high tech” surveillance team. Her job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between an MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby who is posing as a German government agent, and a group of Fifth Columnists (“a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders” – I had to look it up and thought you might not know that phrase, either). It’s dull work in the beginning and, as the only woman on the team, Juliet is often called on to do the kinds of things the men think of as “women’s work.” Our girl Juliet is keenly aware of the slight.
But let’s not to be too hasty in calling Juliet a feminist. To fill her days, young Juliet spends a lot of time fantasizing about a romantic relationship with her handsome boss, Peregrine Gibbons. Perry shows an interest in her that, as it turns out, is not in the least bit romantic. Instead, Perry has chosen Juliet to act as a double agent. As Iris Carter-Jenkins, Juliet is handed a gun, an imaginary fiancé, and very little in the way of training. In no time at all, “Iris” has befriended Mrs. Scaife (a wealthy anti-Semitic) and the Fifth Column. She takes to it like water. It turns out all of the women in the book are masters at assuming whatever identity is needed at the time, a trick we women all now only too well.
After the war, Juliet is working as a producer on “that other great national monolith,” the BBC. Ironically, she is in charge of a program called “Past Lives.” It’s her own past life that is haunting her so badly that she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past have returned to punish her. As it turns out they have… in more ways than one.
The review of this book in the New Yorker suggests - no, out and out says – that Atkinson’s style “isn’t terribly distinctive.” Yet, if you’ve read any of her books, I’d bet you’ll disagree. She has, to my way of thinking a very distinctive style that sucks me into her books and which I think is marvelous. Her, as in her other books, there is both a nostalgia and a sense that the blinders are off and she sees the truth behind the façade. Was this my favorite of her books? No. Life After Life still holds that spot. But I enjoyed this one from the first and loved the way Atkinson bounced me around and then turned everything upside down.