Transcription by Kate Atkinson – Book

Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, joins a spate of World War literature coming out of Great Britain. All these books talk about what British citizens who were not soldiers did during wars. People wanted to help with the war effort and since many of the adults who were still in British cities were women, the tasks women took on often affected them in ways similar to the way soldiers are affected. The end of the war found women who had done unlikely, dangerous and heroic things, having to assimilate their war time behavior into the person they would be moving forward in peacetime. Other recent novels include: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn which I have not read yet, Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce, and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

Why is this the moment when so many writers were moved to write about such very similar experiences? Are people feeling an instability in political institutions these days that could lead to war? Are people rushing to offer us some patriotic roles that we could play? Is this a creative brain meld? Is this just an odd coincidence or nostalgic moment? With all the authoritarian figures rising in nations that once flirted with democracy does this feel somewhat similar to the rise of “you know who” before WWII? Are authors feeling the same fears we all feel that we may be called upon to defend our freedoms in the very near future, or to keep them alive for what could be decades of darkness?

Transcription is an absorbing book all on its own, but I recommend giving all these books a read because each takes a different tack on the same subject. In Transcription our heroine Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 to help keep an eye on Hitler lovers and want-to-be Nazi’s living in England. British intelligence rents two adjacent apartments. In one a rather convincing Godfrey Toby, a spy of course, makes friends and collects important data about England’s defenses. These friends of Hitler think Gordon will pass this strategic data on to Germany. Of course this is simply a way for Britain to keep this information away from Germany and keep potential British traitors from doing real damage to the allied side in the war.

The second apartment is filled with recording equipment and a typewriter where a very young Juliet listens to what Gordon’s unwary informants reveal and then types a transcript that tries to give a word-by-word script of who is talking and what they reveal. Not all of the dialogue comes across clearly but Juliet does the best she can. Then Juliet is embroiled further into spying when she is asked to adopt a new persona and join a more upscale right wing group of traitors. This is how a girl who simply types gets deeply into something that is so unforgettable that she will never be free of either her memories or her handlers.

Do books make the future and the culture happen, do they predict what will come, or do they just reflect the present and the culture of the times in which they are written? It seems that books can do all of these things, and they can sometimes do all of them at one and the same time, which is probably one of the aspects of reading great books that keeps readers hooked. So what will turn out to be true of this little cluster of intellectual doppelgangers?

I am happy to read every book that Kate Atkinson writes and I feel the same way about Michael Ondaatje. I don’t know the other two authors as well but I may eventually be adding them to my long list of beloved authors. However, I would much prefer that these novels be reflective rather than predictive. You may find that you begin asking yourself how you would have performed under similar circumstances. One more point, possibly a #metoo point, although all of these books feature female characters, not one of them is a “chick” book. But because they all happen in the past, all these women work for men. However war seems to blur the lines between women’s work and men’s work as you will see. Don’t forget to spend a few moments thinking about why this book is called Transcription rather than Transcriptions. Thank you Kate.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Running in Heels

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – Book

Michael Ondaatje never writes an ordinary book, at least in my estimation. His books put me in a reverie of unique experiences lived in far off places and times. In his novel, Warlight he writes of some of the people of England and London who performed secret services all over Europe and the Baltic states during World War II. These services had to be kept so discreet that it is difficult for these members of the intelligence service to reenter their prewar lives.

Wars don’t end on the day that a treaty is made. The hurts, the resentments, the losses stay with people affected by wars. People swear to avenge their loved ones from cruel strikes perhaps necessitated by war, but still seen as desecrations. Strategy may deem it appropriate to level a village but the relatives and friends or absent residents cannot rationalize. They carry their shock with them and they nurse their anger and they vow they will seek retribution.

When first their dad and then their mom leave, Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are in their early teens. They think their mom has gone to Singapore to be with their dad who was sent there by his company, until they discover her carefully packed trunk in the basement of the family home in London.

These two have been left in the care of a man called The Moth, a rather lackadaisical caretaker, and all that was orderly about their lives falls away. Rachel (nicknamed Wren by her mother) learns that she has epilepsy and of course she is a girl so what she experiences is quite different from what Nathaniel is allowed to get involved with. The Moth is soon joined by another character, The Darter.

Nathaniel is allowed to work with the immigrant staff overseen by Moth at Criterion’s Banquet Halls, setting up for events and washing dishes. Later he helps The Darter smuggle greyhounds into unsanctioned race tracks through keeping a schedule of nighttime pickups at various stops along a network of rivers and streams near London. Nathaniel is the narrator of Warlight but he does not know why his mom left him and his sister with these strange guardians.

As a grown man Nathaniel (who was nicknamed Stitch by his mother, Rose), is offered a job going through the archives collected during World War II, and although he has been reunited with his mother, her continued secrecy prods him to take the job. He begins to learn about what his mom did during the war and how it has followed her home, why she feels she endangers her own children. With great detail Ondaatje creates a world of lives lived outside the mainstream, interesting but slightly dodgy lives. Rose’s caretaker picks prove wiser than they seem.

Ondaatje reminds us that the human memory is long and that there are rarely clear demarcations between one event and the next, in fact the more complex and heartrending events leave traces that may never quite go away. He teaches us that life, like certain passages in music has moments that can best be described by a term Mahler uses to mark a passage that is difficult or heavy. Life can be schwer. I think you will love learning Rose’s story along with Nathaniel, and how it intertwines with that of Marsh Felon, a thatcher’s son who once fell off the family’s roof and had to mend on a cot in their kitchen. And just to add a bit more mystery, you will find out about Viola and many more ordinary heroes.

Find me on Goodreads at Nancy Brisson.

Photo credit: Google Image Search – Lawn Gnomes Publishing