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Posts Tagged ‘MI5’

I wasn’t able to see the film version of Red Joan while it was playing at my local indie theater, so when I went to Los Angeles I downloaded the Europa Editions novel by Jennie Rooney. I enjoyed it, although the ending didn’t do much for me. Still, a quick skim of the film reviews indicates the book was better, although Judi Dench gets good reviews for her part as the main character.

Joan is in her 80s, taking ballroom dancing and watercolor classes and enjoying living in England near her son and his family after many years in Australia. In the first few pages of the book, she reads an old friend’s obituary and MI5 agents come to her door to take her away for questioning — not in his death, precisely, but in relation to new evidence they have from a Soviet defector that Joan and her friend were spies.

Joan’s thoughts make it pretty clear — as does the title — that she was. Rooney uses the questioning, which takes place over a few days, as the mechanism for going back to Joan’s youth, her days as a physics student at Cambridge in the late 1930s, and her romance with Leo, a Russian emigre, and friendship with Leo’s cousin, Sonya. The cousins take Joan to communist meetings, which she points out to her interrogators was pretty common in those days; lots of intellectuals in Europe admired, at the very least, theoretical communism, and Stalin’s crimes were not yet fully understood. She never joins the party, even though Leo calls her his “little comrade.” The war comes, Joan decides to do her part, and Leo gets her a job at a metals lab in Cambridge, where she meets Max, the lab director, and an unhappily married man.

As Joan recalls her life, prompted by documents shown to her by the MI5 agents, her son, Nick, who conveniently happens to be a lawyer, finds out she’s a suspect and rushes to help her. As it dawns on him that she really did pass secrets from Britain’s nuclear program he is incensed. This conflict allows Rooney to slowly spin out the story of Joan’s loves and friendships, the way she was manipulated, and the choices she made. I appreciated that she is presented as neither purely a victim nor purely a traitor. For Joan, whose father lost a limb in WWI, and who lived through WWII, nuclear deterrence means peace, while for Nick, it is madness. While much has been made of the fact that Rooney credits a news story about an 87 year old English woman revealed to have been a Soviet spy as inspiration, she says in the author’s note that there is little else her character and the “granny spy” share and that she was also inspired by other historical events and people.

While as I said the ending wasn’t my favorite, overall this was an interesting read. I enjoy historical fiction and I felt like Rooney hit all the right notes. The ideas the characters grapple with are more nuanced than the usual good versus evil that often appears in books set in or after WWII. There is much for a book group to discuss, starting with the fact that Joan acts according to her values, believing that she is “sharing” secrets, not stealing them. I was intrigued enough to want to read late over the weekend to find out what happened.

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I took a break from my Europa Editions reading to enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s latest novel, Transcription. Like Life After Life and A God In Ruins, this book’s characters are defined by WWII. This time the heroine, Juliet, is looking back on her war experience. The novel is bookended by two very short chapters set in 1981. In between, it’s either the early 1940’s or 1950. Juliet is just 18 at the start of the war, an orphan, and she becomes a transcriptionist, working in a small covert operation to spy on British fascists who think they are sharing secrets with a Nazi operative, who is in fact working for MI5. Her boss decides she is capable of more, and soon she is playing a young woman of means who sympathizes with the Nazis, and is infiltrating the close circle of an admiral’s wife and member of the Right Club. That was a real organization of upper class British fascists.

Juliet, as Iris the Nazi sympathizer, has some adventures and does well, and doesn’t go unnoticed by the man who run MI5. But her main role as a transcriptionist goes on. The novel tells the story of the small series of dramas that shaped Juliet’s life during the war and what became of her after, when she ends up at the BBC. Transcription is a beautifully written book, and like Atkinson’s other WWII novels, Transcription examines truth and imagination, and the way they are manipulated for better or worse as people try to do their best in a crisis. When Juliet begins to be Iris for her boss Perry’s operation, he tells her, “Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Miss Armstrong. You have an unfortunate tendency to do so.” There are fake identities, lies, subterfuge, and even in one instance, a counterfeit transcript. People who appear to be bad are good and vice versa. Some things are not what they seem but others are exactly.

And many of the people Juliet feels she knows and can trust, or places in her mental picture of the Service and who does what there, turn out to have more than meets the eye to their lives and work. The end of the novel is a kick — I didn’t see what happens coming at all, but then when I finished reading I thought, “Of course that’s what happened.” And the characters, as in Life After Life and A God In Ruins are wonderful, even the minor characters, especially those on the periphery of Juliet’s life. When someone who is only in a few scenes appears perfectly formed in your mind’s eye, and you hear his or her voice, well, that’s good writing. In both the quality of the writing and the subject matter, Transcription reminded me a bit of another excellent book I read recently, Warlight.

One of my Thanksgiving guests has read some of Atkinson’s earlier work and recommended those books as well, so I’ll have to keep reading her!

P.S. In discussing this post with the Computer Scientist I decided Transcription reminds me of John le Carré spy novels in all the best ways.

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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