In 1940’s London, Juliet Armstrong is recruited to MI5. Initially doing mostly secretarial work, she finds herself tasked with more and more espionage, infiltrating right wing groups sympathising with Hitler. Ten years later, she’s working for the BBC when a run in with a former colleague brings her previous work back to haunt her. Is she going to pay for what she did for her country?
I so struggled with this one, and it pains me to say it as I have enjoyed a couple of Atkinson’s other books this year. But this one was mostly tedious and confusing, with characters who seemed barely there. Juliet is hard to like as a protagonist. And I don’t mean that you can’t have main characters who are unlikable, but I just didn’t get her at all. In the war chapters she is 18 and seems very young and naive and bordering on inept most of the time, and yet at others she sounds more like a 30 year old. It’s wartime, she’s in MI5, she’s recently lost her mother, and yet she’s so incredibly flippant all the time. There are constant asides that are supposed to be clever (I guess?) (Hahaha) but just get annoying. So much double talk. An obsession with Shakespeare? Does she feel superior or inferior? She works amongst experienced spies but doesn’t understand why one wouldn’t acknowledge her in the street or that a drop is being made. Yes I’ve seen enough films to be aware of these and other cliches but I really think she ought to be a bit more with it, considering her line of work. And there’s the mooning over her boss. Is that for real? I can’t say what she’s like in the later years as I skipped much of it to get to the end, and so it’s possible those chapters shed more light on her character, but I didn’t care enough to find out.
All of the male characters felt so similar they were interchangeable, and it’s hard to care what they’re up to or whether they’re to be trusted when you can barely remember who they are anyway.
I also disliked the tone. It felt too lighthearted for the subject. Not that all spy novels have to be doom and gloom, and it’s fairly representative of Atkinson’s style, it just didn’t seem to fit here. And yes I skimmed but there were parts towards the end – including deaths – that felt like a farce. Like something from a Carry On film. Carry On Spying I guess.
I don’t like giving books one star, especially not one by an author I have so enjoyed in the past, but given I almost didn’t finish this one and skipped a lot to get to the end, it has to be.
The Author’s Note is interesting and I’d be inclined to read the books she mentions that inspired her to write this, and maybe encourage others to do so instead.