Tag Archives: Second World War

Transcription by Kate Atkinson: ‘Can I Tempt You?’

Cover imageRegular readers will know that I’m an ardent Kate Atkinson fan, always keen to put her novels at the front of any queue for literary prizes although more often than not left discombobulated by the judges’ seeming determination not to hand them over. Perhaps Transcription will buck that trend although it was conspicuous by its absence from the Man Booker longlist. It follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940.

Eighteen-year-old Juliet is a bright young woman plucked from her dull government department job and given what appears to be a similarily prosaic task by MI5: transcribing conversations between Godfrey Toby, posing as a Gestapo agent, and a collection of disgruntled fifth columnists, pleased with themselves at being singled out. Juliet proves adept at her work, her only frustration the puzzling behaviour of her boss, Perry, who seems bent on little more than hand-holding and dry pecks rather than the seduction she’d welcome. Soon, Juliet graduates to full-blown spying in an operation to infiltrate a far more influential ring of Nazi sympathisers than the everyday anti-Semites who meet with Godfrey in Dolphin Square. Flush with success, although chastened by the consequences of overreaching herself, Juliet and the rest of Godfrey’s team continue with Dolly and co until their cover is blown with disastrous results. Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC when she spots Godfrey who refuses to acknowledge her. Resurrecting her old spying skills, Juliet becomes embroiled in paranoid speculation as all sorts of faces from the past pop up. Things may not be entirely what they seem, including Juliet.

Transcription switches between 1940 and 1950, telling Juliet’s story from her own perspective. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. Even the apparently straightforward ending is ambiguous given the convolutions that have come before.

‘Oh, my dear Juliet,’ he laughed. ‘One is never free. It’s never finished.’

As ever, with Atkinson there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy, particularly in Juliet’s observations of Perry:

A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir’ she said.

‘You were missed.’ (Oh, be still, my beating heart, she thought.) ‘No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong.’

Comedy aside, Transcription has some serious points to make about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. I loved it. Bring on all the prizes.

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter): A sharply poignant gem

Cover imageAlthough I’ve read several books published by Peirene – including the dazzling poetic White Hunger, set in a savagely cold Finnish winter – this is the first I’ve reviewed. For readers who haven’t yet come across them, Peirene publish novellas in translation, dubbed by the Times Literary Supplement ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, a quote which they proudly include in their marketing material – and who wouldn’t? They publish three books a year each fitting a particular theme; Her Father’s Daughter is part of the ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ bundle. It’s Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five, and it’s an autobiographical one.

The eponymous daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, is just over four years old when the novel opens. She lives in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother, regularly grumbled at by her grandmother. As the war she’s heard so much about on the radio draws to a close, it seems that her father will be coming home, something she finds deeply unsettling. When she visits him in hospital she’s horrified to find herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, when her father comes home he’s appalled at her spoilt ways, insisting she learns how to behave and resorting to hitting her when she fails to do so. The child turns in upon herself, closes down her emotions, watches her parents and comes to a new understanding of the world. When one day she sees the first flash of tenderness in her father, she decides to become the daughter he wants her to be. So begins a new relationship which tips the child’s balance away from her mother towards her father. All seems well, but there’s a secret she has to tell, something that happened in Normandy when he was away, something that her mother and her grandmother insist must have been a dream. When she reveals it, not understanding its significance, her world explodes all over again.

Her Father’s Daughter is written from the child’s point of view in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose. The sensuous intimacy between the mother and daughter is vividly conveyed, contrasting shockingly with the violence of the father’s outbursts. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. Her bewilderment at the unpredictable, puzzling behaviour of the adults around her is discomfiting, at times heartrending and made all the more so by the knowledge that this is an autobiographical novel. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing. The ending, which has the adult France visited by an insight into her feelings for her father, seemed a little unconvincing but given those autobiographical roots, I can only hope that it was heartfelt.

I read Her Father’s Daughter just before the launch of Women in Translation Month which several bloggers I visit have been eagerly anticipating for some time. Should you want to know more you might like to explore #WITMonth on Twitter or take a quick trip to JacquiWine’s Journal where you’ll find a page devoted to the initiative, chock full of great reviews, .