Category Archives: British authors

Freedom Triumphs Even In The Twilight Years

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

How can I even begin to do justice to a novel so beautiful, elegant and thoughtful as All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West?

This is a novel which confounds the stereotypical portrayals of older people often found in literature. I’m sure you’ve come across them. There’s the senile grandparent in the rocking chair; the hyper-critical crone; the indomitable matriarch; the feisty woman and any number of variations on those themes.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville West’s protagonist is a very different creation. A woman who, in the twilight of her life turns out to be not ‘the very incarnation of placidity’ described by her children but a woman with a quiet determination to be free.

Lady Deborah Slane is 88 years old and recently widowed. As a young girl she yearned to become a painter. But the spirit of the age and the expectations of her family were against her. So she became instead the wife of “a great man”, the perfect consort of the Viceroy of India and Prime Minister of Britain.

Plans Confounded

When he dies, the couple’s six children are left with a burning question: What To Do About Mother. They agree the house is too big and too expensive for her but where should she live? They know their duty but really none of them want her as a permanent fixture in their homes (far too disruptive). But what if she rotated among the married couples, spending time with each as a kind of paying guest?

And so they put another set of expectations in train, believing their dutiful mother will see the merits of the plan. But they have completely misunderstood this woman. Lady Slane astounds them when she reveals she has made her own plans and has absolutely no need of their help at all. She declares:

“I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age. 

She escapes her children’s clutches by forsaking her home in desirable Kensington for a rented house in the not so desirable suburb of Hampstead.

There she gathers an odd assortment of companions: the owner of the house Mr Bucktrout; her loyal French maid Genoux and the jack-of-all-trades Mr Gosheron. Into this close circle comes a secret admirer, Mr Fitz-George, a savvy art collector who met Lady Slane when she was the highly attractive Vicereine of India.

Freedom to Live

All Passion Spent shows that with physical freedom comes the freedom to explore the past and make sense of the world. In this new phase of her life Lady Slane reflects on frustrated artistic passions, on being young and growing old and on the nature of happiness..

Had she been happy? But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula.

At times satirical and at times amusing, All Passion Spent is insightful about the delights of living according to one’s own desires. Vita Sackville West’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf had, two years earlier, argued the necessity for a woman to ‘room of her own’. Lady Slane doesn’t get her room until late in life but she takes full advantage of the freedom it offers to her life on her own terms.

Multiple Delights

There’s so much in this novel that is sheer delight.

The portrayal of the ghastly children with their platitudinous conversations is masterful. I loved the scenes where Lady Slane and her young (er) friend Mr Fitz-George stroll slowly on Hampstead Heath, stopping frequently because they’re tired (though they pretend they want to admire the view).

Above all I adored the refreshing depiction of an elderly lady who delights in her new found independence. Vita Sackville-West shows us a woman whose calm conventional facade hid a passionate nature and an artist’s eye.

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, …

Only as she approaches the end of her life is her true self set free.

If you’ve not read this book yet, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy/borrow/beg a copy. I promise you will not be disappointed.

If this books gets you thinking about how older people are depicted in literature, do take a look at the Bookword blog where Caroline reflects on that very topic. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Fast Facts

All Passion Spent first appeared in 1931 under the imprint of the Hogarth Press, an independent publishing house run by Leonard Woolf and his wife Virginia. Vita Sackville-West had been Virginia Woolf’s lover and they remained good friends.

Vita Sackville-West was a successful poet and journalist as well as a novelist. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.

With her husband Sir Harold Nicolson she created the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, now owned by the National Trust.

Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?

They were magical words.

Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. 

As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps. 

The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn. 

Fireside Stories

The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.

None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.

The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”

Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.

Miracle and Mystery

For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.  

Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.

In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears

… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.

He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?

Three people claim she is theirs.

A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.

A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.

A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.

Sorrow Amid the Menace

Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.” 

That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.

Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl

He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.

Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.

It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.

The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.

Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.

For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.

Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.

At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….

Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.

With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.

But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.

He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.

Once Upon A River: Fast Facts

  •  Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
  • Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
  • My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
  • Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller

Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

The Salt Path

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.


The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

Has Kate Atkinson lost the plot?

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

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