Transcription by Kate Atkinson

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The British cover is SO much better! But isn’t it always?

Atkinson has two distinct oeuvres–one of detective novels, and one of more classically literary work, largely invested in the lives of British people during World War II. Nobody was quite sure which this was going to be, and indeed, it’s really both.

It is a spy novel–it follows Juliet Armstrong (“Miss Armstrong,” to anybody who ever addresses her) who joins the MI5 around 1940 as a typist, and things escalate–but it’s also much more personal than anything you could reasonably consider a thriller, from the loss of her mother to her unconventional relationship with her boss, Perry Gibbons. (I supposed that relationship fits under the umbrella of romance, if you use a golf umbrella). It’s not just that the novel includes these things; it’s the way it explores them. In short, these characters are richer than what you typically find in even well-written fiction that exists foremost on the level of plot–it takes on more. And then there is the persistent undertone of indignation about the roles of women.

At the same time, it has too many sort of silly, pat observations, especially in Juliet’s self-commentary, to pull itself all the way into the Life after Life category. Enjoyable, but not likely to linger.

Postscript: Juliet later works at the BBC, and portions set there are interspersed. Throughout, it had me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, another WWII/BBC novel and the undisputed classic of this micro-genre. Atkinson, it turns out, had that in mind, as she invokes it reverently in her author’s note at the end.

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