Not all of Kate Atkinson’s novels have been what she calls historical fiction, but the last several have been. This novel may hew closest to the truth, though like she says in the Author’s Note
at the end, she wrenched open history and stuffed it with imaginative reconstruction, at least one fantasy for each fact.
The author tells us afterward what her intentions were: we have questions—that’s inevitable—and instead of farming out possible answers to various reviewers, she’s just blunt with us what we’d been wondering about. There is something comparable in theatre, when the actors takes off their masks for the final bow and we all celebrate together.
Atkinson returns to the Second World War, periodic releases from the National Archives of secrets from that time fueling her creative process. When she discovers [true fact] an ordinary-seeming bank clerk was a major cog in rounding up British supporters of Nazis, her story had a frame. When she discovered [true fact] hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts of conversations of dissident groups in London, her story had a heart.
What Kate Atkinson does is not necessarily unique (using historical documents to create fiction), but what she does with it is unique. Her style, tone, and characters are recognizably hers. She is funny: one knows there are people out there whose droll delivery of witty responses to ordinary questions is quintessentially British but we don’t come across it enough. Atkinson can do repartee.
By now Atkinson may be incapable now of writing a straightforward fiction with a chronological timeline. This novel has only three time periods to work with and really only one central character, which simplifies the action enough that I only had to reread an earlier section once. This was partly due to my surprise, maybe a little resentment, and finally pleasure at being taken out of the action at what seemed like a critical moment…again! She’d done that to me in the previous section as well. I was burrowed in like a tick, and am yanked to a later, earlier, whatever time. Atkinson manages to satisfy and confound a reader at the same time.
Atkinson’s characters always have the ‘ghost of Jackson Brodie’ about them. This is a very good thing, considering how much we liked Brodie and wouldn’t mind having him resurrected. We could make the case that the main character in this novel, Juliet Armstrong, is a female Jackson Brodie—honest and therefore vulnerable, she doesn’t have so high an opinion of herself that she is insufferable. In the end she is well able to take care of herself. She’s smart, and a very good liar, but keeps herself a little distant. After all, who can one trust?
At eighteen, Juliet is parentless: "her mother's death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief." Young and alone, Juliet was not, however, callow. She lied like crazy through a job interview with a flippant and overly-inquisitive young man who interviewed her for a job, which she was surprised she got. Later she learned he'd known every lie, and appreciated the ease with which she misled him.
This book is about spies, spies working in the service of the British government, or so we believe. What is special is that we see what is British about them—what is ordinary, patriotic, courageous, honorable. But we also see a nation at war and we see duplicity, hunger, ambition, pettiness. Then we lay over that the work of the other nations at war, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and a few exceptional people emerge alive, not unscathed, but breathing at the end. The tension comes when we are not sure who will remain standing.
Atkinson writes about the middle of the twentieth century, but she could be talking about the twenty-first:
Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones, Perry said.”)
Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.
One always senses the intelligence in Atkinson’s work. She not only writes a good story which means getting the humanity right, she makes us think while we read. She’s unpredictable. And frankly, I like her politics. It’s always a pleasure to enjoy another of her books.