Transcription by Kate Atkinson

No one tells a story quite like Kate Atkinson, but truthfully, what I love most about her books is her incredible way of constructing a sentence, her wry, almost aloof, yet clearly affectionate way of engaging with her characters. I genuinely feel I would read her adaptation of the phone book.

Transcription follows eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, who in 1940 is recruited to MI5 to monitor British Fascist sympathisers. From transcribing reports by unwitting and oddly mundane fascists, convinced that they’re sending secrets to Hitler, to being sent out to parties of Nazis, the job is both relentlessly dull, yet often thrilling. Until disaster strikes, and Juliet finds herself concealing something terrible.

Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC as a producer, still periodically drawn in for an odd MI5 job, but mainly occupied with the BBC’s schools program. But the past is rapidly catching up with Juliet. Decisions she took, as well as accidents not of her making seem to be putting her at risk. Who from the war is finally seeking retribution?

It was a joy to leap back into Kate Atkinson’s writing. I’ve always loved her wry humour, and her quirky, endearing and flawed characters. Juliet starts the book as a naive eighteen year old, albeit with a mildly sceptical attitude, nursing an almighty crush on her boss and dedicated to doing what’s right. Ten years later, we find a slightly more hardened and cynical Juliet. “There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.” The British misdeeds of the war are not glossed over, from the Italian staff at Juliet’s favourite café Moretti’s, interned during the war, eventually dying at sea, to the rampant antisemitism of the Oswald Mosley set. Unlike Cressida Connolly’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable After The Party, Atkinson doesn’t accept any suggestion that British fascists didn’t know what they were signing up for.

Thought-provoking and beautifully written, Transcription still very much has the pace of a thriller. It’s an exhilarating, sometimes playful chase through London, which also explores at the meaning of truth, loyalty and the very point of war.

A hugely enjoyable and clever spy thriller, that isn’t really a spy thriller. Or is it?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is out now, published by Transworld.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

My name is Henrietta S Robertson. That’s my English name. It is the name on my name tags, my holiday suitcase and on my cabin trunk. It is the name written by my mother on the first page of my Bible. My Chinese name is Ming-Mei, which means Bright and Beautiful. It isn’t labelled anywhere. It’s just a name I carry in my thoughts, a name that echoes when I try to remember Mother’s voice.

In a Land of Paper Gods

1941. Etta is the daughter of missionaries in China, raised with both the devout Christianity of her parents, and the beliefs of the village that her parents want to convert. At the age of six, she was sent to Lushan School, a school set up for the children of missionaries in the Jiangxi Province. Now ten, Etta is certain that she, like her parents, has a divine calling and enlists her fellow students into the prophetess club, where they give themselves new names and their duties include making regular prophecies and saying ‘hark’ a lot. But the power struggle within the club between Etta and her rival Big Bum Eileen spills over, and Etta’s attempts to regain control end in disaster.

Meanwhile, the Sino-Japanese War rages on, and even isolated as the school is, it cannot escape the Japanese soldiers forever. Etta’s journey of self-discovery is interrupted as she and her classmates find themselves in a Japanese internment camp.

In a Land of Papers Gods is a story that I had never heard before – that of the children of missionaries left in boarding schools. The daughter of Scottish missionaries, Rebecca Mackenzie based In a Land of Paper Gods on her own childhood, which she spent much of in Thailand and that sense of being in-between cultures comes through very clearly through Etta. A strong feeling of abandonment also runs throughout the novel. The children aren’t used to affection – even Aunty Muriel, the kindest of the teachers, keeps a distance – and when one of the mothers visits, the children flock to her, seeking maternal approval for reasons they don’t quite understand. In one scene, another mother tries to leave her hysterical son in the school. Watching, the girls remark ‘It’s not fair of her to come and visit him.’ Later, one of Etta’s classmates breaks down and Etta notes that she ‘is not playing the game of pretending everything’s okay.’

Something I particularly admired was how convincingly Mackenzie captured the voice of children at the school: occasionally self-important, frequently cruel, accidentally funny, and often repeating things they hear without quite understanding what they fully mean. Etta’s nemesis Big Bum Eileen is a particular highlight – a figure of authority in the dormitory as the only one yet to have ‘boobies’ (which are measured on a weekly basis). Though Etta is certainly a precocious and anxious child, she is also naive, boisterous and needy in that very familiar way of children. Living in a remote and mystical part of the world, and battling classroom hierarchies, it is only in the internment camp, outside the stiflingly claustrophobic school environment, that she can meet other people and grow up.

 

I initially found it quite hard to review this book – I couldn’t work out if I found it rushed a little through the third part, but I generally found it satisfying and very enjoyable. The writing is stunning and very effectively conveys both the hazy, misty atmosphere of the mountains – and the harsh heat and hardships of the internment camps. In a Land of Paper Gods is a strikingly original and very touching debut – and I really look forward to what comes next.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is published by Tinder Press.

Wake

I heard some wonderful news today.

Whilst perusing twitter, I was delighted to hear that there is a new book by the fantastic Anna Hope in the pipeline for February (it’s in the diary!) and it reminded me of this review I wrote for her beautiful debut Wake last year, but didn’t have anywhere to publish. Fortuitously, Hayley suggested I join her over on Back to the Books, so here is my review!

Wake is set over five days, from the day the body of the Unknown Warrior is disinterred to its burial in Westminster Abbey. Told primarily from the point of view of three women, it is also interspersed with the stories of anonymous watchers who see the coffin pass.

Hettie, who lives in Hammersmith, is a dancer. She’s lost her father to Spanish Flu, and her brother is suffering from serious shell-shock. The youngest, she wants to forget the war. Evelyn works in the pensions office and is unable to recover from the death of her fiancé. Resigned to spinsterhood, she is stunned when a private comes in searching for her brother, and even more so when she finds out why. Ada is a woman in her forties who sees visions of her dead son Michael. She never received a letter telling her how he died, and has never really felt closure. The characters could be viewed as “stock” wartime female characters but are so much more than that. Their stories are sensitively and unflinchingly told, as they try to make sense of their own private losses, and of the preparations for the burial of the Unknown Soldier.  The stories of those watching the coffin pass, men and women who have lost loved ones, or who have survived the horror are equally touching.

Wake highlighted how overwhelming the grief following the war must have been – everyone lost somebody. As Ada watched the coffin pass, she momentarily feels certain that the battered tin hat adorning it is in fact Michael’s, before seeing another mother gasp, and realising that every mother, who were unable to bury their sons’ bodies, associates this unknown body with their own son.

Episodes like this, a small child convinced the body is that of the father she’s never known; a survivor of the war wondering at how he could have been so lucky to return, are so beautifully and movingly told and had me close to tears on more than one occasion.

Wake is a stunning debut, that I would recommend to everyone. A short book, it’s a quick, devastating and yet beautiful read, and I look forward to reading The Ballroom, published by Transworld and (I am informed by the Internet) is a story of love, obsession and eugenics.