Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!
Your probably know something of the premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray from pop culture (I’m pretty sure there’s a Simpsons Halloween episode that recounts it): handsome young man sells his soul to remain ever-young while having the portrait painted of him grow old in his stead. Liberated from the physical evidence of sin (the theory being that sin shows up in the eyes and face), Dorian descends the vice ladder into gambling, ruining female reputations by being seen with unmarried women, whoring, opium and eventually murder. Along the way he is urged on by the devilish, morally questionable, and aphorism spouting Henry Wotton (honestly, I can’t think of a single thing Wotton says that hasn’t been transcribed onto a ‘literary tote bag’ or ‘literary magnet’ at some point or another. Even while he’s viciously sexist and excessively proud).
It is a delicious and delightful novel that plays at once at the thought experiment would-you-rather questions of youth or goodness, beauty or morality, while also asking the reader to question the assumptions we make about other based on what we see in their visage (oh how 19th century writing meddles with the diction of my thought). All the while written with a sort of playful Horror and Terror and Fright at the ‘scandals’ Dorian embroils himself in. (No surprise the book was banned and caused Outrage – to think that the assumptions of a 19th century morality might be something you intentionally and explicitly question…).
Mostly it is a book about art, and the possibility of art creating the eternal for the artist. And in the case of this book, it’s hard not to be persuaded that Wilde the man – for all his complexity – is most certainly dead, while the artist lives on in the work. In that way it’s a hair on the side of self-indulgence, but done so with knowledge and humour. That is to say, the writing is all too conscious of the hubris of wishing art into eternity.
The only part I found tedious was in a long section just after Dorian discovers the painting holds the evidence of his sins. It’s a near endless accounting for the way he burns through his wealth on gems and art and music and how he spreads the influence of his epicurean philosophy among his peers. It was… exhausting. Probably the point.
I listened to this one as an audio book and highly recommend it in this form. Free from my library and brilliantly narrated. Though I wonder what Wilde might think about the mutilation of the form from immersive reading to listening-whilst-driving/cooking/cleaning/being-a-fucking-do-everything-for-everyone-all-the-time-woman. Probably he wouldn’t care, because for the most part women are decorative. Ha. But seriously. Good.
So while I was reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent I was loving it: fog-filled Essex streets where 19th-century characters fall in love and chase after a mythical-perhaps-actual serpent haunting the people of the seaside town. Continue reading
Julian Barnes, Julian Barnes. I remember reading The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters in eleventh grade and thinking “WHAT. Writing can do this?! This is ah-mazing.” Ever since I’ve been a defender. A devotee. (see: The Noise of Time and A Sense of an Ending). And I started out with The Only Story thinking the same thing. Ah ha! More magic from Barnes. Continue reading