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.
Washington Black… Washington Black… If I were redoing my comprehensive exams in Canadian literature I’d put Washington Black on the list. And not just because it has extensive scenes of Snow and Ice (our titular protagonist finds himself – unprepared and unexpectedly – in the Arctic with his master-turned-friend-turned-masterscantbefriends), but because it is a great read and comprehensive exams in Canadian literature need 99% fewer books about black flies and 99% more of this combination of compelling exploration of Canadian civility coupled with excellent writing.
Right, so what’s it about. We open with our first-person protagonist, Washington, as an eleven-year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In the opening chapters his life takes a turn when he’s ‘given’ to Tish, the eccentric naturalist brother, of the plantation slave master. What follows is a chronicle of his life from that moment until an uncomfortable resolution/departure from Tish many years later.
The initial encounter with Tish is one of the first moments where luck enters the plot (later scenes of a hot air balloon landing on a ship during thunderstorm or bumping in to the right botanist at the right time) in a way that isn’t frustrating so much as it reinforces that for all of us, the idea of our life owing to ‘hard work’ has much less to do with merit than it does to first-foremost-and-always the inherent privilege of our race, gender and class of birth, and then-with-similar-consequence-and-similar-lack-of-control, the random fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. It’s a powerfully delivered message meant to disrupt any earnest beliefs we might have about genius or personal industry.
Luck is complicated further in that Washington really is some kind of genius artist. And does make decisions for himself that have positive – and negative – consequences. So it’s not like throw-up-your-hands-nothing-matters, more a way of reminding the reader that where historic slavery ends, the continued belief that white people are better than people of colour or indigenous folks continues, and in the subtle ways of thinking that what I have is somehow (exclusively. or mostly) because I earned it, rather than a web of privilege and luck with a peppering of personal effort.
It’s also a book attentive to smell, which is great.
ANYWAY. It won like a million prizes, and so if my endorsement isn’t sufficient, maybe the Booker committee or the NYT will be. And not knowing Esi Edugyan or her work habits, I’d say this book stands in opposition to all I’ve just said – as every page shows hard work and genius.
Folks. People. Friends. Readers.
It’s been a flurry. I’ve read not one, not two, but THREE books. And all of them were mostly okay but not inspiring enough to make me like YES-this-needs-its-own-post, so you’re getting this mashup. Buckle up. Continue reading