There are plenty of stories of naïve young women caught up in World War Two who prove plucky and shrewd when parachuted into occupied France to work in espionage or join the Resistance. This novel focuses on a more mundane form of spying, and at times almost seems like a parody of the genre.
Obliged by her widowed mother’s terminal illness and death to give up her school scholarship and prospect of trying for Oxford, Juliet Armstrong finds life taking an unexpected turn when she is recruited by MI5 in 1940, initially as a typist transcribing bugged conversations between Fifth Column Nazi sympathisers and “Gordon Toby”, the work colleague masquerading as a Gestapo agent.
Pehaps intentionally, the recorded conversations are monumentally boring and trivial – little threat to national security – but when Juliet is recruited to spy on one of the female members of an ultra-right wing club, matters take an unexpected sinister turn. As the plot switches continually between 1940 and 1950, when Juliet is working on childrens’ programmes at the BBC, the tale becomes less of a spy thriller, and more a case of paying the price for past actions.
At times the story is quite funny, even a page-turner creating the sense that the plot is going somewhere interesting and unpredictable. Therefore I tried to suppress my irritation (over the excessive use of asides in brackets!), together with a sense of unease over the underlying jokey, flippant attitude to war, which seems an aspect of Juliet’s personality. She is actually quite an unappealing character: instinctive lying without blinking, often for no apparent reason; getting a “buzz” from taking the occasional fool-hardy risk; proving ruthless and calculating under pressure; perhaps the ideal spy in her lack of emotion or commitment to anyone or anything. She is kind to dogs, or people who have suffered inadvertently through her actions, but does not seem deeply moved by anything.
This impression may be the unintended consequence of shortcomings in the writing. I agree with other reviewers who have found the characters wooden and underdeveloped, the few really dramatic incidents implausibly contrived, and the long-anticipated climax so disconnected from what has gone before that it seems as if pages have been left out in a printing error. It is presumably intended to be a clever and surprising twist, but it seems like lazy writing, even insulting, to foist it on the reader in this way.
Whereas most writers apologise for any factual mistakes in a novel, Kate Atkinson defiantly admits “I got a lot of it wrong on purpose” – permissible in the case of MI5’s refusal to “spill the beans” on the transcription process. The portrayal of BBC School Broadcasting in the early 1950s seems accurate as I recall, and it does not bother me if the rest is not. What I find harder to accept is an established writer taking the soft option of a plot with gaping holes.