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The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma

faber and faber, 1990, 346 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat Употреба човека (Upotreba čoveka) (Nolit Belgrade, 1980) by Bernard Johnson.

The Use of Man cover

At first this book appears to have an odd structure, starting as it does with a description of Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek’s diary, as if this is to be her tale, but she is soon dead following a gall-bladder operation. Then Chapter 2 is devoted solely to descriptions of various habitations. In addition there are later chapters which deal only with descriptions of characters, or their nightly preoccupations, or their deaths – whether natural or violent.

Fräulein Drentvenšek, however, was a teacher of German and her services were much sought after in the then Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad. In her final hospital days she entrusted her diary to her Jewish pupil Vera Kroner, with instructions to burn it after she died but instead Vera inscribed it with the details of Anna’s death before replacing it on Anna’s shelves. The book is thereafter mainly concerned with the lives of four of Anna’s pupils, Vera, Milinko Božić, Sredoje Lazukić and Sep Lehnart. As these events occurred in 1940 the book becomes an exploration of the Yugoslavian experience during the Second World War. There is obvious scope here for a novelistic focus on love, sex and death. The first of those is in short supply here (perhaps it’s a luxury in a time of war and the breaking of nations) but there is plenty of the latter. Whether due to the filter of translation or the author’s own intentions sex, though, is observed in a somewhat detached manner in the book – it’s something people do (or have done to them, in Vera’s case) but never described in any detail nor as a means to joy.

Being Jewish, Vera is of course predestined to the concentration camps, which she survives in the only way one could, by endurance and luck, Sep, her cousin on her non-Jewish mother’s side, joined the SS, Milinko became a partisan, Sredoje a sexual predator. All are changed, after the war unable to settle to a life at odds with dark memories and broken minds or bodies. The utter disorientation which camp survivors must have felt is summed up by Vera’s thought on returning to her childhood home after her experiences, “It was not home at which she arrived, though it was Novi Sad.” And the war’s end is not the story’s, the idiosyncrasies of the new communist regime also have to be negotiated.

The Use of Man is both easy to read (since Tišma writes well,) yet not an easy read. The countries of central Europe and the Balkans have unenviable histories. For readers to explore those histories in fiction might be one of the best ways to prevent their repeat.

Pedant’s corner:- “he like luxury” (liked.) “In their, furnished room” (no need for the comma,) “mount of Venus” (this may be a literal translation but in English it’s ‘mound of Venus’,) heavey (heavy, unless ‘heavey’ is a word meaning ‘having to be dragged’,) a missing comma before, or at the end of, a piece of direct speech (several instances, with more of the former,) teen-agers’ (teenager’s,) “came to nought” (naught,) cozy (cosy,) willd (wild,) “she lost her husband from a bullet” (the English idiom is ‘to a bullet’,) dumfounding (dumbfounding.)

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2005, 158 p.

The Finishing School cover

On reading this I found my dissatisfaction with Spark’s writing beginning to crystallise. Clearly people find it engaging and worthwhile but to me there is something cold and detached about it, observational yes, but uninvolving. Her de haut en bas style renders her characters flat and merely going through whatever motions Spark intends for them. They don’t come alive. They certainly don’t leap off the page and into my mind.

This one all starts promisingly enough with a lecture on scene-setting in writing delivered by the joint owner of College Sunrise, the Finishing School of the title. He is Rowland Mahler who runs the place along with his wife Nina (who actually does most of the work.) One of the attendees, Chris, a seventeen year-old, is writing a novel where he speculates the death of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was instigated by a desire for revenge on the part of Jacopo, brother of David Rizzio in whose murder Darnley was deeply implicated. Rowland has aspirations to be a novelist himself but having read Chris’s first two chapters finds himself blocked and increasingly obsessed with Chris.

That first page is deceptive though and we are soon pitched into a narrative where too much is told, not shown; where information is dispensed to the reader in a way that is like reading author’s notes for characters rather than experiencing them behaving as themselves. They may have passions but we are not given the opportunity to feel them but Spark does find space to include a few sideswipes at the publishing industry.

There are some interesting ideas here but they are not fleshed out. In the end this is not so much a novel, more like a series of preliminary sketches for one. Or an extended outline.

Pedant’s corner:- wirey (the word is spelled ‘wiry’,) automatons (automata,) a missing comma before a quote (x2,) to-day (why the hyphen? It’s spelled ‘today’,) “on the grounds of imputed, activities unbefitting her one-time royal connections” (doesn’t need that comma after ‘imputed’,) “‘Is that it’s natural colour?’” (its.)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Book Two, The Neapolitan Novels. Youth.

Europa Editions, 2015, 467 p. Translated from the Italian Storia del nuovo cognome (Edizioni E/O, 2012) by Ann Goldstein.

 The Story of a New Name cover

I was not overly impressed by Ferrante’s first novel of her Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend, and wasn’t actively seeking out any more of them. I saw, though, the remainder of the quartet priced very reasonably in a second-hand book shop and felt I couldn’t pass them by. I’m now glad that I did, for this second instalment seemed to have much more to commend it than the first. There was certainly a better flow to the narrative.

This may be because this book didn’t have the almost relentless focus on courses taken and exams passed that the first had – those are still here but muted by the fact that narrator Elena Greco is by and large undertaking these herself and not contrasting her successes and failures so much with her comperes – or that her attention has shifted to gender relationships.

There is naturally more focus here on sexual politics than in a book about childhood friends. Her brilliant friend Lila’s marriage is blighted from the start by the conflict sown by that incident at the end of Book One of the trilogy where the shoes she designed were given on her wedding day by her husband-to-be to her sworn enemy. Lila is immediately subjected to that physical chastisement by her husband – prompted by the desire to be seen to be a man and followed by the phrase, “look what you’ve made me do ,” – to which women of her milieu seem to be resigned and turn a blind eye to in others. But dark glasses can only cover so much. Curiously, Elena’s first boyfriend, Antonio, despite his seeking (and selfishness for) his own sexual pleasure at her hands, behaves with sanctimonious (albeit in his case temporary) abnegation by denying her similar succour on the one occasion when she implicitly offers her body to him.

One aspect that seemed out of kilter, though, for all her academic excellence, was Elena’s apparent obliviousness to the wider world. She contrasts her lack of self-assurance, of knowing how to behave, the attitudes to have, in comparison to that of the scions of the middle class she meets in her high school and – later – University days. Her school professor more or less introduces her to newspapers – which Elana confesses to finding boring and confusing, under the influence of a University boyfriend she affects interest in left-wing politics but she never seems to connect them to her childhood neighbourhood. Poverty is something that simply exists, to be struggled against, naturally, but not considered systemic or alterable. Lila is of the opinion “that there was nothing that could eliminate the conflict between the rich and the poor,” because those at the bottom always want to be on top and those who are on top want to stay on top.

Nunzia, Lila’s mother, has one of the most striking lines in the book, ‘For your whole life you love people and you never really know who they are,” while Nella, the mother of the object of Elena’s unrequited affections, Nino Sarratore, in relation to Lila’s attractions tells Elena of men’s great fear in the face of female beauty, “that their thingy won’t function or it will fall off or she’ll pull a knife and cut it off.”

From certain incidents (most notably the narrator’s eventual loss of virginity being referred to as reproduced in detail in a later fictionalised telling) it would seem we are being invited to assume that Elena’s story is a disguised account of Ferrante’s own life but that would be to deny any degree of authorial artifice. In any case our narrator’s coming to wider prominence is not pseudonymous as ‘Ferrante’’s is in the real world. There is certainly a density of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction; but it is an author’s job to try to represent the world.

And once again, the novel ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Not portending as much of a potential conflict between characters as that in My Brilliant Friend but a tease just the same.

Pedant’s corner:- In one of the blurbs at the front: “both The Days of Atonement and Troubling Love are tour de forces” (tours de force that would be.) In the Index of Characters; “Elena, who likes the story a lot, and gives it to” (no need for the “and”.) Otherwise: “I knew only I was not what I wanted at that moment,” (it was not what I wanted,) insure (ensure,) enroll (enrol,) milleniums (millennia,) curtsey (curtsy,) “I handed in my … tests when my schoolmates … had barely started on it.”

Ian Sales’s 2010s

The last of Ian’s lists in response to the BBC’s one. He’s appended the whole 100 at the end of his final post.

I’ve read six of these but can’t remember if I read D C Compton’s Synthajoy back in the day.

Women of Wonder is on my tbr pile.

81 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928, UK)
82 Seven Miles Down, Jacques Piccard & Robert S Dietz (1961, USA)
83 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968, UK)
84 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992, USA)
85 Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991, UK)
86 Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013, USA)
86 God’s War, Kameron Hurley (2011, USA)
88 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002, USA)
89 Spomeniks, Jan Kempenaers (2010, Belgium)
90 The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946, USA)
91 Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (2011, USA)
92 Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961, Canada)
93 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011, UK)
94 The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989, USA)
95 Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent, ed. (1974, USA)
96 HHhH, Laurent Binet (2012, France)
97 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012, Germany)
98 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006, Spain)
99 Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK)
100 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1931, USA)

Mexica by Norman Spinrad

Abacus, 2006, 510 p.

Mexica cover

Spinrad is no stranger to readers of Science Fiction, coming to prominence around the time of the New Wave with works such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream (an Altered History SF novel whose author was supposedly Adolf Hitler.) In the early part of this century, though, he took a turn into historical fiction with The Druid King, about Julius Caesar’s adversary Vercingetorix the Gaul. Mexica is his take on conquistador Hernán Cortés (in the text always referred to as Hernando Cortes) one of History’s supreme adventurers – or villains, depending on your viewpoint.

Our narrator is Cortés’s companion, and unwilling advisor, Avram ibn Ezra (an Arabised form of the Jewish Ben Ezra,) who was baptised Alvaro Escribiente de Granada since being a Jew in the newly united Christian Spain under the scrutiny of the Inquisition was not a healthy prospect. This choice allows the narrative to distance itself both from the brutal Christianity of the Spanish invaders and from the sanguinary religious practices of the indigenous Mexica and their vassals. (Only once or twice is the word Aztec mentioned. This apparently was an insulting term deriving from the bumpkinish highlands down from which the Mexica came to replace their predecessors, the Toltecs, whom the Mexica still revered, after that earlier people had vanished into the east.)

It is arguably a necessary choice, as religion mattered. For how else can a few hundred men bring down a mighty empire? In this telling the Mexica – or at least their emperor Montezuma – were undone by their beliefs. The Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was prophesied to come back from the east with a light skin whereupon the fifth world (that of the Mexica) would end and the sixth begin. On hearing of the arrival of the Spaniards Montezuma awaits a sign from his god of war, Huitzilopochtli, as to their true nature, and receives none. A native woman, Malinal (known to present day Mexicans as Malinche but here dubbed Marina by the Spaniards as it’s easier for them to pronounce,) a princess of one the Mexica’s vassal states, sold into slavery when they were defeated, takes up with Cortés and, aided by Alvaro, becomes his translator. She it is who nudges Cortés (despite his own religious qualms) into affecting the appearance, and, in native eyes, substance, of Quetzalcoatl. The prospect of not having to pay blood tribute to the Mexica in the form of the hearts of their young men also leans on the Mexican vassals whom Cortés enlists as allies, vassals all but mystified at the thought of a god who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten by his worshippers rather than requiring their own of his believers.

It was still a very long shot, emphasised when after a couple of military victories against allies of the Mexica on the journey to the central high plateau, Alvaro briefly views through the clouds the magnificence of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan, from the mountain pass above. The city was built on a series of lakes and joined to the surrounding land by four causeways. An impregnable fortress it would seem.

Later, after falling in love with the place, Alvaro wonders, “How could the civilization that had built Tenochtitlan rip out human hearts on such a bloody altar?” but also, “How could the civilization of the Prince of Peace who commanded men to love their neighbours as themselves burn human beings at the stake in his name? How could those who worshipped an Allah who was styled the Beneficent and Merciful behead the infidels who would not bow down to him?”

Whle the central figure here is always Cortés, the most sympathetic and tragic is Montezuma, who is entrapped and imprisoned by Cortés and thus in conversations with Alvaro vouchsafes to the reader his philosophy. Here is a man who, in trying to do the best by his gods as he sees them, loses not only his empire, his people and his city, but also his life. That those gods were horrific taskmasters and not worthy of any such soul-searching or devotion does not diminish this. Religious beliefs make people do strange and bewildering things. From his religious perspective Alvaro sees, “This is the crime for which I have no name. Having conquered their lands, now we were conquering their spirit.”

Mostly a self-serving – not to mention greedy – hypocrite and casuist there are contradictions too in Cortés’s behaviour, illustrated when he gives full military honours to the dead Montezuma and Alvaro tells us, “There were so many reasons for me to hate Hernando Cortes…. But … there were moments …., when no matter how I tried, I found it impossible not to love the bastard.”

Before the story gathers momentum with the landing in Central America the reflective nature of Alvaro’s account can be a little tedious. The text is liberally larded with the word ‘thereof’ and vocative asides to “dear reader”, a tendency which drops out when the action sets in only to reappear many pages later. ‘Alvaro’’s intent in setting this down is to expose and expiate his guilt at the part he played in the downfall of the Mexica and the beautiful city they constructed. But in the end he rationalises that, “..it could not have been prevented. Even if Columbus had never set sail it could not have been prevented, for Europe had the ships, and sooner or later someone would have discovered this New World.” The fulfilment of Montezuma’s omen was inevitable. “For this new world held treasure and unbounded virgin land unknown in the tired old one, and Europe had the greed to covet and the means to sieze it.” The greatest devastator of the Mexica though, would be what Alvaro names as the small pox, a weapon more deadly to the natives than either cannon or arquebus. The Mexica live on, however, in the adaptation of their name to that of the modern day country sitting on their lands, a process which had begun even in Cortés’s time.

Alvaro’s profoundest thoughts are however inspired by the much older civilisation that built the huge pyramids at Teotihuacan, whose people were forgotten even by the Mexica. “This was not a New World. This was a world old beyond imagining…. Five worlds come and gone … And now the breaking of the fifth and the coming of the sixth.” He consoles himself with the thought that in the end great events do not matter; civilisations amd conquerors may come and go but, “It is in the small things that life comes closest to eternity.”

Pedant’s corner:- Cortes’ (innumerable instances, Cortes’s,) sprung (sprang,) “to the point where no one dare approach him” (the narrative is in past tense so, ‘no one dared’ – and ‘no one’ ought to be ‘no-one’,) maws (mouths was the intended meaning, not stomachs,) imposter (I prefer impostor,) “but more than not wearing only simple cotton shifts” (more often than not is a more usual construction,) “in a foreign land as Britain might be to a Spaniard” (there was no Britain as a foreign ‘land’ (in a political sense) in the time of Cortes – only the geographical island.)

Alasdair Gray

Sad, sad news.

Alasdair Gray has died.

If he had never done anything else in his life his first novel Lanark (arguably four novels) would have made him the most important Scottish writer of the twentieth century’s latter half, if not the whole century. (Perhaps only Lewis Grassic Gibbon rivals him in that respect.)

But of course he published 8 more novels, the last of which I read in 2009, 4 books of short stories – see this review of one of them – 3 of poetry (I reviewed a couple here and here,) many pieces for theatre, radio and television plus books of criticism (as here) and commentary (eg see here).

Yet that was not the least of it. There is also his work as an artist and illustrator to take into account. His drawing/painting style was unique and uniquely recognisable; much admired and sought after.

A polymath and curmudgeon, learned and contrary, Gray was one of a kind.

Even as his work lives on we will miss his acerbic presence.

And I still have his The Book of Prefaces to peruse.

Alasdair Gray: 28/12/1934 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

Best of 2019

These are the books that stood out from my reading this year – in order of when I read them. 7 by men, 6 by women. 3 were SF or Fantasy.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Shiloh by Shelby Foote
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Exhalation by Ted Chiang

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Corsair, 2012, 381 p. First published in 1963.

 The New Moon with the Old cover

In Book One we meet Jane Minton on her way to take up a post as secretary at Dome House, owned by Rupert Carrington to whom Jane had taken a slight fancy at her interview. Her encounter with Carrington’s children Drew, an aspiring writer, Richard, a composer, Clare, whose only ambition is to be a king’s mistress, and the fourteen-year old Merry who wishes to be an actress (this was first published in 1963; it was how female thespians were referred to in those days) plus their two live-in servants is entirely convivial and Jane settles in.

Her idyll is soon shattered, though, by the arrival at dead of night of Carrington, who informs her he is wanted by the police on suspicion of fraud and must flee the country, enjoining her to tell his family of this new circumstance. The five hundred pounds he has given her to tide the family over will not last long and all will have to fetch for themselves.

Here is where the novel’s structure begins to break down as the next four Books follow each of Carrington’s children in turn, first Merry, then Drew, then Clare and finally Richard, as all (except the last) set off into the wider world ,meet people only too willing to think the best of them, and manage to fall on their feet; Merry (in an actress’s alias disguising her true age) with an aristocratic family, Drew as an old lady’s companion, and Clare with an eccentric old gentleman with a secret. These “Books” are interluded by single chapters back “under the Dome.” They are in effect separate novellas having little to do with each other cobbled together under one umbrella.

As in Smith’s I Capture the Castle we have an upper-middle class family down on its luck being saved by happenstantial meetings. There, the narrative voice, being that of a young woman with not much experience of the world, was fresh and lively. Here, extended over five third person viewpoints, it became more wearing. There was also a relentless focus on matters of domestic detail, too much telling rather than showing, and a deal of introspection from the viewpoint characters.

It all felt very cosy. Too cosy.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark (x 3.) “Drew and Merry were in the hail” (in the hall,) ‘‘’One should think of it’ (has an errant apostrophe,) “‘you”re going to’” (you’re,) Glare (x 2, Clare,) grills (grilles,) “‘I wish I’d time for a test before dinner’” (a rest before dinner,) wisteria (wisteria,) “of the Whitecliff’ songs” (what that apostrophe is doing there goodness only knows,) Mr Sevem (Severn,) “three old ladles” (old ladies,) forgotren (forgotten,) doubifully (doubtfully,) a missing full stop, “‘but saintly no. l assure you.’” (‘but saintly no. I assure you’,) Aunt Winlfred (Winifred,) “all dosed” (all closed,) sudduely (suddenly.) “‘Is it a nervous trick’” (nervous tic?) “ their spines and comers bound” (their spines and corners,) “who had waked Mr Charles” (woken,) inlayed (inlaid,) “the ftont door” (front.) Mt Charles (Mr Charles,) cracking (crackling,) linancial (financial,) ex-girl friend (this makes her seem an ex-girl; ex-girlfriend,) “‘and I I’ll kiss you’” (doesn’t need that ‘I’,) “meant it as regard Lord Crestover” (as regards,) “the fall truth” (full truth,) presenfly (presently,) “he sat in the ball all morning” (in the hall,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Rasouniovsky (elsewhere always Rasoumovsky.)

Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … 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?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins, leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

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