From transcript to transmission

Flowers, buds and leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla [credit: Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia]

Kate Atkinson: Transcription
Doubleday 2018

The title of this novel, as with many novels of ideas, is a key to understanding what unfolds in its pages. The main protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, works for MI5 during the war transcribing the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, themselves entrapped by spy posing as one of them.

But is the spy what he seems? This is a second level of transcription: is what we read on the page an accurate record of what has transpired, or is it a best-fit interpretation, or indeed a false record? In metafictional terms, are the facts described in this novel the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

The narrative seesaws between 1940 and 1950, from global conflict to Cold War, framed by a flash-forward to 1981. Juliet herself moves from MI5 to the BBC — from transcripts to transmissions, as it were — and yet the manufacturing of ‘facts’ continues with children’s programming, especially the dramatic reconstructions of how life was supposed to have been lived in Britain in times past. And, indeed, in the ‘present’. Has everything been a lie?

Continue reading “From transcript to transmission”

Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

Continue reading “Metamorphosis”

Starling taught to speak

starling-bewick
Starling woodcut by Thomas Bewick (1809)

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift
Macmillan Children’s Books 2015 (1993)

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …
— Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1

Here is a publishing curiosity. The Morning Gift was originally written in the 1990s for an adult readership but then, to the author’s surprise, reissued as a teen read in 2007 (presumably slightly revised then by the author, as a copyright notice suggests). I can see how the temptation to repackage may have arisen: it’s a sort of Rags-to-Riches story, with the young heroine (she’s around twenty, I should add) playing a Cinderella role until she and her Prince Charming finally get together. But within the Boy Meets Girl trope, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth, there is so much more to enjoy. For a start, there’s a generous dose of autobiographical detail that lends both honesty and authenticity to the narrative. Continue reading “Starling taught to speak”

The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

Continue reading “The hand of the poet”

Freelancing

wewelsburg
Schloss Wewelsburg

Duncan Kyle Black Camelot
Book Club Associates 1979

I tried not to let the tawdry 70s jacket illustration put me off: Duncan Kyle, on the dust cover of the hardback, hints that a lot more of this World War II fiction is true than might be expected of a thriller. But that’s just what he might say, you might assume, in order to help sell the book. It’s a cunning device, isn’t it, designed to elicit the response, “It makes you think…” And yet the writing draws you in, so that from all the verbatim conversations, seemingly genuine documents and the detailed clandestine action you could almost believe it’s all true.

Almost, but not quite. Continue reading “Freelancing”