Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionThings are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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Review 1347: A Place Beyond Courage

Cover for A Place Beyond CourageIn 12th century England, John FitzGilbert is the marshal for King Henry. He is an astute politician and a masterful organizer. FitzGilbert’s comfortable position is threatened, however, after Henry’s death. Henry has made all of his men pledge fealty to his daughter, Matilda, upon the event of his death, but he does not affirm his successor before his death. Many of Henry’s men prefer to follow Stephen, Henry’s likable nephew, after his death rather than recognize Matilda as queen or even as regent for her young son, Henry. The result is the period of English history called the Anarchy.

At first, John throws in his fortunes with Stephen, but he eventually recognizes that Stephen is a weak ruler, too swayed by his closest advisers. In particular, Stephen fails to reward John for his successes in battle. So, John switches sides to Matilda, along with other discontented men.

John is also unhappy in his marriage. He married Aline, his innocent young ward. Aline is painfully shy and seems totally unsuited for her position. She takes little interest in anything but the church.

A Place Beyond Courage is moderately interesting, but I feel it suffers from a trait common to historical fiction about actual characters. It tries to follow too faithfully the events of FitzGilbert’s life, resulting in a series of brief scenes instead of a more integrated novel.

Chadwick has also taken a character historically reviled because he gave his son over as a hostage with a famous speech that boils down to “There can be more where that came from” and depicted him sympathetically. Whether he deserves this treatment is questionable. Chadwick says he is know to have been gentle with women and children, but he sets aside Aline, his wife of many years and mother of his son, a woman he married for her fortune, for Sybilla, a young, beautiful woman the marriage with whom brings peace and useful connections. To justify this, Chadwick makes Aline unfit for her position and Sybilla so eminently more suitable that in the book this relationship is telegraphed for years before they even meet. Do any of these people actually deserve how Chadwick treats them? I’m not sure. Certainly, FitzGilbert seems mostly driven by ambition to me.

Making interpretations like this is the purview of a historical novelist, certainly, but most are more cautious than this. In any case, these doubts of mine are just thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading. My main objection is how Chadwick crams 20 years of events into a long series of short, staccato scenes. Few of the characters are very fleshed out because of this approach.

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Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

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Review 1341: The 1965 Club! Frederica

Cover for FredericaThe Marquis of Alverstoke is known for his elegance, athletic skill, and selfishness. He never does anything that causes the least inconvenience for himself. So, when his sister, Lady Buxted, tries to persuade him to give a coming out ball for her daughter Jane, he does not hesitate to refuse. Mrs. Dauntry, his heir’s mother, hears a rumor about the ball and asks Alverstoke to include her daughter Chloë.

Then Miss Merriville comes to call. Frederica Merriville is a distant connection of Alverstoke’s who has come to London hoping to introduce her beautiful sister, Charis, to society with the object of making her a comfortable marriage. Since she has no acquaintance in London, she hopes Alverstoke can help her.

Alverstoke has little interest in helping Frederica until he sees Charis. Then he decides to throw a ball for Jane and Chloë out of maliciousness toward his sister, making it a condition that Lady Buxted sponsor Frederica and Charis. He knows that she will be furious when she meets the beautiful Charis.

Soon, Alverstoke finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the active Merriville family, which includes two younger boys—Jessamy, a serious sixteen-year-old, and Freddy, a scamp at twelve. After a few weeks and several scrapes, Alverstoke realizes he hasn’t been bored in ages.

Frederica is one of the delightful novels by Georgette Heyer, a writer full of wit and a recognized expert in the period. As is frequently the case with Heyer, I found it funny and touching with a cast of amusing and likable characters.

This was a book I read for the 1965 Club. Here are some previous reviews that also qualify for the club:

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Review 1334: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Cover for Jamrach's MenagerieBest Book!
Jaffy Brown and his mother are eking out an existence in the slums of 19th century London when, as a very young boy, he meets a tiger coming down the street. Not knowing enough to fear it, he walks up to pet it and it picks him up in its mouth. The tiger is an escapee from the animal importer, Mr. Charles Jamrach, that has fortunately just been fed, so Jaffy isn’t harmed. Jamrach gives him a job taking care of his animals, and his fortunes materially improve.

Jaffy befriends two twins, Ishbel and Tim. As he gets older, he learns to love Ishbel, although she is alternately affectionate and aloof. With Tim, he develops more of a love/hate relationship.

When Jaffy is 15, Jamrach decides to send an expedition to the East Indies to look for a reported dragon. He picks Tim to go with Dan Rymer on the expedition, but Jaffy signs as a sailor. He has always felt an affinity for sailors and the sea. They set off on their voyage.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a terrific novel. It is simply a good story that pins you to the page. It is imaginative, evocative, and the writing is gorgeous. I read this for my Booker Prize project, and I loved it.

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Review 1333: Literary Wives! Wait for Me, Jack

Cover for Wait for Me, JackToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Wait for Me, Jack is the story of a marriage, told backwards. I remember this technique being used for the movie Betrayal, giving the final scenes of the enraptured beginning to an affair a certain poignancy. That’s not really the effect of this novel, however.

The novel begins with a few scenes before the death of 80-something Jack. His wife Milly can hardly walk, increasingly more debilitated since her injury in a car accident in her 40’s. Jack has had a couple of heart attacks. Both have been suffering from the indignities of old age.

The novel works its way backwards, showing them at two- or three-year intervals, until they meet at work in their 20’s in 1950. This backwards approach may have worked better if it was not so regular, if we saw them at less frequent but more significant times of their lives. Instead, it visits them at purposefully mundane times—not when they split up but when they are separated, not when their son dies but before and after.

A more significant issue, though, is that their problems are trite and not very interesting. Jack is a philanderer. Milly is dreamy and a  neglectful housewife. Their personalities are ill-defined. Sure, we see their thoughts over a period, but we still don’t have much of a sense of them as people. I started out mildly interested in them but eventually bored, especially when I found that the last four or five pages echo the first four or five almost verbatim. Really? Why not end with their first sight of one another? Wouldn’t that have been more poignant?

And by the way, what did they see in one another? We’re told that Jack first thinks he’s meeting a classier lady than Milly proves to be. He has upward ambitions. But he must find out that is not so fairly early on. In any case, their reasons for staying together are not clear. I disliked Jack and found Milly to be silly, and the other characters are just ciphers, there for the plot to continue.

I have commented on this before for other novels, but I also disliked Jones’s technique of having her characters think words  like “Gee” and “Jiminy.” These might be words that people say, and she obviously thinks these expressions are cute, but we don’t ever think these sort of interjections.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Despite her occasional insights, I found Milly to be much more enigmatic than Jack. For a girl who at the beginning of the book seems to want adventure and a change from her lower-class roots, she settles pretty quickly into a standard 50’s housewife at first not much better off then her parents were.

She actually reminded me of my mom, a dreamy person not really suited to her role, at one point imitating Jackie Kennedy. She accepts her role better than my mother did, though, and stays devoted to her husband even when he strays. Why is that? Is that just because it is what you did in her generation? But that’s clearly not true, as it is just at this time that divorce increased so much in the U. S.

Jack has the typical 50’s view of his wife and never really advances out of it. He considers their money his and discounts the effort she spends caring for the kids or keeping the house. “What do you do all day?” he asks, even though anyone who has done both roles knows that keeping a house and caring for children is a lot harder than working in an office. These were accepted views of the time, though. Still, Jones herself seems to have the same view, having Milly watch soap operas and read magazines and daydream more than showing her engaged in her daily tasks.

So, how to answer this question? I see Milly as a woman who accepts her traditional role as defined in the 50’s and doesn’t really advance much with the times. Jones shows her, for example, puzzled about feminism in the 60’s and 70’s but not really getting it. She inexplicably puts up with Jack’s dalliances and accepts his illegitimate son into her family. Most of the time, she doesn’t really seem to love Jack (although I think she loves him more than he loves her), just as he doesn’t seem to love her but criticizes her all the time. However, she stays devoted to him in other ways.

Maybe this describes most marriages. I don’t know. But I think the biggest problem with this book is that it takes a surfacy look at marriage.

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Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

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