Thursday 22 February 2018

Walter weaves twisting net of spies and lies

Fiction: A Quiet Life, Natasha Walter, Borough Press,pbk, 440 pages, €19.49

Warm storyteller: Natasha Walter's previous novels include The New Feminism and Living Dolls
Warm storyteller: Natasha Walter's previous novels include The New Feminism and Living Dolls
A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter

Maggie Armstrong

Evocative spy thriller is bound to make this feminist theorist the newest mistress of historical fiction.

Historical fiction is not a type of fiction that I ever warmed to. Unless written by Hilary Mantel, Isabel Allende or Tracy Chevalier, stories set in the past seemed to be trying too hard to recover the past. An author takes on too much and, in the end, either the history seems dubious or the fiction seems fake, or both. Instead, why not just read a history book, or a novel written years ago?

So I wouldn't have exactly picked up Natasha Walter's first and very thick novel unless it had fallen through my letterbox, verdict intended for these pages.

That will teach you to judge a book before you open it. A tale of spies in war and Cold War, A Quiet Life dragged me in and left me stunned. If you like John le Carré's tasty plots, Elizabeth Bowen's chronicling of upper-class inertia, then this novel might do the same for you.

It opens in 1939 and 20-year old Laura, a naïve American girl, is on a ship to England. Florence, a talkative young Communist, converts her to the class struggle; Joe, an eager journalist, puts his hand up her skirt on deck. The story sets off on this note of double discovery, of whetted desire and political foment.

Laura never goes home, but the war she encounters is different to what we have read about. It is interesting that in 440 pages, Hitler's name is not mentioned once, though other aspects of the era are alive and fresh: the feel of bomb shelters, the taste of expired soup, the debates about class. In London, staying in the dull confines of her aunt Dee's house, her interest is turned further to Communism.

This is Walter's first novel but not by any means her first book. As the author of The New Feminism and Living Dolls, she writes as a feminist, with a special insight to one woman's restricted freedom. Communism is an alternative for Laura to playing Solitaire in drawing rooms, or sitting in a velvet dress at dinner parties while the men retire for cigars.

She goes to Party meetings for the promise of equality, but also to meet men and women. (In the lust-filled society Walter creates, homoerotic desire is as alive as every other kind of desire, even if it's forbidden). It is sad and amusing to see how the disillusion even with Communism creeps in, as Laura watches the Soviet sisters begin "the usual singing of The Red Flag in their thin sopranos. Their dutiful octaves tried to enfold the crowd, but people remained separate, lost in individual thought".

Only when Laura lets slip a comment about "the struggle on two fronts" does she meet a man who marries both worlds, Edward Last - a golden boy of the ruling elite with a top job in the Foreign Office, and a secret life feeding information to Stalin.

Just as Laura's lack of freedom as a single woman draws her to Sovietism, her lack of freedom as a rich wife leads her to spy on her husband's behalf. You get a desperate sense that her heart is not in it, but she has nothing better to do.

So begins that "quiet life" of betrayal and misery. Engrossingly told, little by little - amid the Blitz and the bland cocktail parties.

Under her code name, "Pidgeon", she moves in a labyrinth of dead-letter drops, illicit camera-film taped to the inside of newspapers, emergency signals, strange meeting places, strangers on trains, bugs and, above all, silence. The detail of our heroine's espionage is so tight we become absorbed in its lies and complicit in her survival. Weirdly, we root for her, even when history has taught us the cause is rotten.

But Natasha Walker doesn't deal in the glamour of the double life. She deals in its depressing seediness.

There is the isolation and loneliness of the spy, the fear and mistrust of others, the terrifying loss of control, the characters' personal neglect and decline into alcoholism. We witness the souring of love as it's offered up to the revolutionary cause. Between Mr and Mrs Last: "The disintegration was mutual."

The story is inspired, the author acknowledges, by the life of Melinda Marling, wife of Donald Maclean, one of the Cambridge ring of spies. (You assume that Laura's evocative "blue Schiaparelli coat" is a homage to one of these real-life spy appendages.) The author has clearly exploited all the written sources, but her copious and careful research never intrudes.

A Quiet Life, for all its 440 pages, is a thing of beauty, atmosphere-built image by crisp image.

Usually, beautiful prose is a distraction to the main matter at stake, here it is an addition to fine storytelling in a tense wartime climate. Dreamy passages put us off guard when the story twists. In Walter's net of spies and lies, there is just no telling what is going to happen.

Set between 1939 and 1953 the novel covers an ambitious territory. Crossing continents, they stay in at least 12 different places, effortlessly entered and exited. Dozens of characters appear, disappear and reappear: Alistair, the parasitic journalist, Winifred, the bisexual, bob-cut working woman; Amy Parker, the coke-addicted divorcee; Stefan, the faceless, Eastern European spy handler.

And not one of the numerous toffs that appear in the novel is superfluous to the story. Everyone is a possible traitor, informant, weak link, taunt or source of betrayal in a "miasma of corruption".

Walker paints a nasty, backstabbing society, and it is a credit to her warmth as a storyteller that we put up with the various cold characters. Even Laura remains off-bounds to us, and we never fully understand her motives as she hides behind different characters - in London, the privileged debutante; in Washington, the embassy wife; in Geneva, in, well, circumstances we won't spoil here. The author seems to use this distance as a device, enforcing secrecy even between narrator and reader.

Expect hype, expect book prizes and expect to hear the name Natasha Walter many times more, the latest mistress of historical fiction.

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