Tag Archives: Spies

#BookReview ‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson #literary #WW2

Few of the characters in Transcription by Kate Atkinson are who they seem to be. A novel of the Second World War, Transcription suggests that the ripples of wartime secrecy spread out through the following years so that outstanding lies and betrayals are eventually repaid. Many years later. Kate Atkinson

In 1940, Juliet Armstrong intends to join one of the women’s armed forces when she receives a letter on government notepaper and is summoned to an interview. After being informed by telegram that she has got the, still unspecified, job, Juliet boards a bus which takes her to Wormwood Scrubs prison, now converted into government offices. There she works in Registry, shuffling files around, until Perry Gibbons says, ‘I need a girl’ and Juliet finds herself working for Perry’s MI5 counter-fascism team at a flat in Dolphin Square.

Told across two timelines, 1940 and 1950 – with a brief glimpse at 1981 in the prologue and epilogue – Transcription has a huge cast of characters, most of whom I confused and, I suspect, Atkinson wishes me to confuse. Some characters are spies with cover names, some are only described and have no name while others seem innocent, too innocent to actually be innocent. If this is all confusing, it is meant to be. That is Atkinson’s point. This is a story about the importance of truth and how lies, which seem pragmatic and normal in wartime, are still lies. And that the most obvious traitors are not always the ones to be worried about.

The 1940 storyline covers the MI5 operation. At first, Juliet’s job is type up transcripts of bugged conversations between fascist supporters in the next door flat; later she takes on the persona of Iris to infiltrate a group of fascist agitators. Sometimes she fluffs her lines, sometimes she is impulsive and gets into trouble. At all times she feels isolated and unsure of the value of what she is doing. She is also a young woman and looks for signs of interest from the men surrounding her. In 1950, while working in the Schools Department of the BBC making educational radio programmes with titles such as ‘Can I Introduce You To?’ and ‘Have You Met?’, she sees familiar faces from her wartime days and the past revisits her.

Atkinson excels at the small detail which makes these workplaces convincing, creating believable relationships between Juliet and radio engineer Cyril at Dolphin Square, and with junior programme engineer Lester Pelling at the BBC. I enjoyed this book but wouldn’t describe it as a page turner. I’m not sure I liked Juliet but she held enough fascination for me as I tried to figure out what she did and didn’t believe in. I was never totally sure if I believed in her.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book is fascinating and perhaps would have served better as a Foreword. So, in summary, not my favourite Atkinson novel but not a bad one either.

Read my reviews of Life after Life and A God in Ruins.

If you like this, try:-
The Heat of the Day’ by Elizabeth Bowen
After the Party’ by Cressida Connolly
Shelter’ by Sarah Franklin

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
TRANSCRIPTION by Kate Atkinson #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4cx via @SandraDanby

Book review: Midnight in Europe

Alan Furst1938. Spain at war, Europe on the brink of war. This is the first World War Two novel I have read about the overlap of the two wars, the impact of one on the other, and the approaching shadow of fascism. Nothing happens in isolation. The Spanish Civil War is notoriously difficult to understand: so many factions, changing names etc. Sensibly, Alan Furst concentrates on one aspect: the supply of weapons to the Republicans fighting the fascist army of Franco.

A secret Spanish agency in Paris sources arms and ammunition for the Republicans. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris and working for a French law firm, is asked to help. Unsure what he is getting into, but resigned to help his mother country, he is soon looking over his shoulder to see if he is being followed – he doesn’t know who by, it could be the Spanish fascists, the Gestapo, the Russians. Inter-cut with Ferrar’s story are excerpts from the front line in Spain where preparations are being made to fight the Battle of the Ebro. The need for the weapons is desperate, as bullets are counted out for each soldier.

Working with an odd mixture of diplomats, gangsters and generally shady characters, Ferrar first travels to Berlin where there is a glimpse of the pre-war country which with hindsight gives us a chill. The Gestapo follows them at every step. Then there is a nail-biting train journey to Gdansk, as an arms shipment goes missing. The climax is a thrilling boat journey from Odessa to Valencia. Ferrar, is a lawyer not a spy, he is simply an ordinary man doing what he can to help. An ordinary man who is, meanwhile, having a sprinkling of love affairs which may or may not be authentic.

If you have been put off before at reading novels about the Spanish Civil War because the politics is confusing, you will enjoy this novel. The shadow of war in Europe is cast over every page, the sense of approaching doom however does not seem to affect the nightclubs of Paris, or the shops of New York where the cheerful atmosphere seems unreal. Ferrar faces moving his family from Louveciennes on the outskirts of Paris, the picturesque country west of the capital which was painted by the Impressionists, to the safety of New York.

Alan Furst

[photo: alanfurst.net]

This is the first novel by Alan Furst [above] I have read, picked up at random in an airport bookshop. I will read many more.

Click here for Alan Furst’s website.
To read an extract from the book, click here.
Watch this You Tube interview with Alan Furst, speaking about Midnight in Europe.

If you like ‘Midnight in Europe’, try these other WW2 novels:-
‘Citadel’ by Kate Mosse
‘A Hero in France’ by Alan Furst
‘Dominion’ by CJ Sansom

‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst [UK: W&N] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE by Alan Furst #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1ct