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London, 1940. Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, and tasked with transcribing the recordings of a group of suspected Fascist sympathizers who meet regularly in a London apartment. The group is led by Godfrey Toby, a double agent working undercover for MI5. Juliet finds the work tedious, and relieves the tedium by imagining romantic entanglements with her boss, Peregrine Gibbons, who is not undercover, but is certainly hiding something.
After weeks of boredom, Juliet is thrilled when she is asked to take on an assumed identity – Iris Carter-Jenkins. Iris infiltrates a group of high-society women whose husbands have all been imprisoned because of their support for Fascism. There are code words and passwords and words of the day and it seems that nearly everybody in the group is working undercover for MI5.
Juliet’s world is upended when one of Godfrey’s group arrives early to a meeting and catches him talking with Juliet about one of the transcriptions. Shots are fired, and a cover up begins.
Ten years after the war, Juliet is working as a radio producer with the BBC. She assumes her wartime past is dead and buried, but then she bumps into Godfrey on the street one day. He pretends not to know her and quickly goes on his way. But the chance encounter disturbs Juliet’s long-hidden memories of the war and she has to come to terms once again with the events of 1940.
Atkinson’s novel draws on actual wartime events, but spins them wickedly to create this delightful romp through the halls of MI5. Her language is playful and fun, her wit sharp and well observed. The characters are finely crafted, but flawed, and all the more realistic for their flaws. This is a superb read.
Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her novels have won many prizes, including the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the Costa Novel Award in 2013 for Life After Life.
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