No one or nothing in Kate Atkinson's new novel is exactly what it seems. There are double agents, double crosses and secrets galore. It is, as Winston Churchill once said in another context, a riddle inside a mystery inside an enigma. It is literary fiction, historical fiction masquerading as a mystery/spy thriller.
Moreover, Atkinson uses much the same technique as she employed so successfully in Life After Life to take us back and forth through the life history of her main character, Juliet Armstrong.
We meet Miss Armstrong on the day of her death. It is 1981 and she is 60 years old. She is crossing a street in London when she is struck by a car. She knows she is dying as she lies on the pavement surrounded by concerned passersby who try to help.
Flashback to 1940 when she was still only 18 and an orphan. She is recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI5, to work as a transcriptionist. She is to listen to the conversations between an MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby, and a group of British Nazi sympathizers, the so-called fifth column, and then transcribe those recorded conversations on paper. Her workplace is an apartment next door to the apartment where the agent meets with the Nazi sympathizers and attempts to get them to reveal their activities. Finally, she is recruited to do some spy work on her own, to infiltrate another group of fifth columnists. She continues working for MI5 throughout the war.
We next meet her in 1950 when she is 28 and working for the BBC. London is still under the pall of the recent war. One day, on her lunch break, she sees Godfrey Toby on the street, but when she rushes to greet him, he denies that he is Toby and insists that she has mistaken him for someone else. She is shaken by the experience and is more shaken still when she receives an unsigned note saying that she will pay for what she did. What could the note be referring to?
Back we go again to wartime and Juliet's relationship with her boss Peregrine (Perry) Gibbons. She entertains erotic fantasies about Gibbons and when he invites her on a weekend excursion to the country, her hopes are high. Those hopes are dashed when it transpires that her boss is an amateur naturalist and he has invited Juliet along to observe the birds and beasts in their natural habitats! A certain amount of hilarity ensues.
In fact, one of the charms of this book is its humor, much of it expressed in Juliet's irreverent and sarcastic asides. At times the humor borders on the madcap as Juliet proves to be quite a capricious and careless spy.
There is tragedy as well - it is wartime, after all - and Juliet participates in her share of it. It is this which makes her fear retribution when she receives that note in 1950.
But who is this Juliet Armstrong really? Is she who and what she seems, or is she, too, hiding something? Atkinson keeps the cards on Juliet very close to her vest and only reveals them toward the end. When they are laid on the table for all to see, of course, it all makes sense. And we remember what Juliet's boss in MI5 once told her: "The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they're on."
Atkinson has spun a rousing good tale. Call it a spy thriller, a mystery, or literary fiction, or better yet, don't try to categorize it at all; just go where the narrative takes you.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars