’Transcription’ is the latest stand-alone novel by Kate Atkinson in which eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited straight out of school by MI5 in 1940 not long after her mother has died. Initially given secretarial tasks as well as the roles usually left to women such as making the tea, she soon begins transcription work monitoring the conversations held in a flat in Pimlico between Fascist sympathisers and an undercover British agent named Godfrey Toby who poses as a member of the Gestapo. A decade later, she is working as a radio producer of children’s programmes at the BBC believing that her wartime activities now lie in the past. However, a chance encounter with Godfrey (also known as John Hazeldine), some threatening notes and a sense that she is being followed remind her that the world of espionage is not one easily left behind and there are some who want Juliet to know that her actions have had far-reaching consequences. Continue reading
Tag Archives: World War Two
Kate Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life published in 2013 told the story (or rather stories) of Ursula Todd who lives her life several times over in many variations with very different outcomes. Her latest book ‘A God in Ruins’ is a “companion novel” rather than a sequel which focuses on the life of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy. Spanning his life across the twentieth century and four generations of the Todd family, it draws on Teddy’s youth at Fox Corner, his wartime experiences as a pilot flying a Halifax bomber followed by later post-war years with his family. He marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy but has a strained relationship with their daughter Viola who shows little appreciation for the horrors Teddy witnessed when he served in Bomber Command. Continue reading
‘The Good Liar’ by Nicholas Searle tells the story of Roy Courtnay, a conman aged in his eighties living in the leafy suburbs of England who is attempting to swindle wealthy widow Betty McLeish out of her life savings after meeting her on a dating website. However, although Betty appears to be a very easy target for Roy, she also appears to be suspiciously willing to become his latest victim.
I tend to look out for debut novels at the beginning of the year and ‘The Good Liar’ is one which I featured in my New Books Coming Soon in 2016 blog post last month. Stories about characters who live double lives are always intriguing, particularly when they have been written by an author like Searle who can reveal little about his own career as a senior civil servant dealing with security matters. Continue reading
‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine opens with the death of Vera Hillyard, one of the last women to be hanged for murder in Britain in the late 1940s. The story is told from the point of view of Vera’s niece, Faith, who was in her early teens during the Second World War when the main events and crime in question take place. Some thirty years later, Faith is approached by a journalist called Daniel Stewart who is researching the case for a book he is writing and she slowly unravels her version of events as well as a number of family secrets.
‘Dominion’ by C. J. Sansom is an alternate history of what could have happened if Winston Churchill had failed to become Prime Minister in 1940 and Britain had signed a treaty with Germany ending the Second World War. In 1952, David Fitzgerald is a civil servant hiding his Jewish identity and secretly working for the British Resistance movement as a spy. His mission is to rescue his friend, Frank Muncaster, from a mental hospital before the Gestapo discover his terrible secret which could potentially change the balance of world power. Continue reading
After reading two excellent novels in recent months about Soviet spies recruited at Cambridge University – Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan and Red Joan by Jennie Rooney – I was intrigued by Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five spies recruited by Arnold Deutsch in the mid-1930s. Philby worked for Britain’s secret intelligence service (SIS or MI6) during the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War before his activities as a double agent for the NKVD and KGB were finally uncovered in 1963.
I was fascinated by the original premise of ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney which is based on the true story of Melita Norwood who was famously unmasked as the KGB’s longest serving British spy at the age of eighty-seven in 1999. In Rooney’s fictionalised version of events, Joan Stanley, an eighty-five year old woman living in the suburbs of south east London, receives a visit from two British intelligence operatives who have come to question her about her past after so many decades of silence. The story is cleverly told through a series of flashbacks as the links between Joan’s past and present are gradually revealed.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year, ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy tells the story of Gilbert Joseph who emigrates to England in 1948 from Jamaica after fighting in the Second World War, shortly followed by his new wife, Hortense. Queenie Bligh has given up waiting for her husband, Bernard, to arrive home after fighting in the war, and takes in Gilbert and Hortense as lodgers to help make ends meet. However, when Bernard suddenly reappears, events become a lot more complicated. Continue reading
‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn tells the story of Stephen Wheatley, who returns to the quiet street where he lived as a young boy in England during the Second World War and looks back on a particular incident when his friend Keith announces that his mother is a German spy. The boys soon get caught up in solving this mystery only for new discoveries to be made instead. Continue reading