Historical fiction—our most inclusive of literary genres—is, by definition, fiction set in the past, typically a bygone era with which we and the writer likely have no lived familiarity. Fascinating period details abound and sometimes notable figures show up, too, but what fundamentally resonates with us is the evocation of a distant world at once alien and similar to our own. At its core, historical fiction appeals to our nostalgic sensibilities. If we are drawn to an idyllic past, we are drawn as well to profundity, for that which is meaningful and deeply felt, even painfully consequential. Which is why, in our nostalgia (at least as readers), it’s often the tragic that we romanticize most intensely, that most satisfies our cathartic urge.
Hence, the backdrop of war in so much historical fiction. War is the ideal dramatic framework: life and death, heroism and villainy, pleasure and pain, all on a national or global scale, providing a deeper context for our characters’ private dramas. It is realism at its most heightened, and no era captivates the Western literary imagination as much as World War II. At the center of its myriad theaters of conflict is history’s most horrific horror; at the center of that, history’s most villainous villain. That larger narrative of the war exemplifies what the English critic Christopher Booker calls an “Overcoming the Monster” plot, where the hero sets out to defeat a threatening, often evil force and, after setbacks and much loss, vanquishes this threat and restores order to the realm. The last part is crucial. World War II fiction, even when it doesn’t directly involve the war or any clear heroes or monsters, is still framed by the promise of our eventual triumph over Hitler and the Nazis. That promise provides a safe space, if you will, for the romance of that era in Western literature.
One wonders if this romance has driven Kate Atkinson’s imagination of late. Turning from the detective plots of her popular Jackson Brodie novels, she has immersed her last three books in the sweeping tragedies of twentieth-century world war. In 2013’s ingenious Life After Life, her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies on the second page, then proceeds to die again and again throughout the novel as Atkinson continually rewrites her life for the reader, including one where she befriends Eva Braun, shoots Hitler in the heart, and is herself shot. Atkinson’s equally ambitious companion novel from 2015, A God In Ruins, tackles this notion of multiple lives more subtly and arguably with more pathos. The protagonist now is Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, and while we’ve lost the high-wire storytelling of Life After Life, we are again crisscrossing through time and all the stages of Teddy’s long life, at the center of which are his harrowing days as an RAF bomber pilot during World War II. These exhilarating passages replay throughout the novel and reinforce its central irony: In surviving the most extraordinary experience of his life, Teddy is doomed to live in its shadow, his heroic past depriving him of all the other lives he could have lived. While Life After Life revels in rebirth and endless possibilities, A God In Ruins contends with the immutability of the past and the certainty of decay. Both novels, however, derive their power fundamentally from the framing of this era as a moral and emotional apotheosis of their protagonists’ lives, no matter how many lives they each have.
World War II casts an overwhelming shadow again in Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, which opens with its heroine hit by a car and lying on the pavement. Juliet Armstrong is a former M15 agent who’s just returned home to England after a long exile. It’s 1981. Princess Diana is about to be married. As death approaches, Juliet thinks of the war: of the Russians who’d been England’s enemies, then allies, then enemies again; and of the Germans, their greatest foe and now a friend to all. “It was all such a waste of breath,” she muses. “War and peace. Peace and war. It would go on for ever without end.” Amid this endless cycle of violence, a question also emerges: Is this an accident or foul play?
The story jumps back to 1950 and introduces the mysterious Godfrey Toby, an “ally” from Juliet’s past who inexplicably treats her like a stranger on the street. She is bemused, remembering the “hideous act” they committed years ago, “the kind that binds you to someone forever.” Another time jump takes us back further, to 1940, when Juliet is first recruited into the Security Services. Recently orphaned at eighteen, raised on Shakespeare and her mother’s romance novels, she’s a daydreamer wandering into a career in espionage. After a perfunctory interview, her recruiter informs her that she is “honourable and upright. And so on.”
This section, the novel’s longest, showcases Atkinson’s generous gift for world-building and investing high drama with everyday verisimilitude. Various mysteries develop, but for a stretch the narrative is buoyant with idiosyncratic conversation and Juliet’s wry observations about this world of eccentrics who will come to shape her as a spy and a woman. There’s Clarissa, full of verve and sarcasm, a fellow recruit and Juliet’s first “real friend,” who introduces her to the excesses of wartime nightlife. When they first arrive at the Scrubs, the prisonlike headquarters for M15, she tells Juliet, “Well, Pa always said I’d end up behind bars.” There’s their alcoholic hanger-on friend Hartley, a “remarkably unattractive” boor who somehow has the ear of everyone at the Scrubs and beyond.
There’s also Peregrine Gibbons, a polymath who speaks Swahili and does magic tricks and whose renegade status at the Scrubs has him running his own small “deception game” in Pimlico. Perry “plucks” Juliet out of the young female pool and installs her in a flat at Dolphin Square, next door to an identical flat with bugged walls and unwary visitors. Juliet is to transcribe the conversations of the neighbors, a group of Nazi sympathizers who believe the German government is secretly renting the flat as a meeting place for them and their undercover Gestapo agent, Godfrey Toby, actually an undercover M15 agent. Godfrey is the lynchpin of this operation but remains “The Great Enigma,” as he is known in the service, and his extracurricular activity becomes a source of increasing intrigue for Juliet.
Of equal intrigue to her is Perry, twice her age and awkwardly full of secrets. Though attractive (“perhaps not leading-man material, more of a character actor, she thought”), it’s his unknowability that appeals to her most as a young woman whose “éducation sexuelle…was woefully ridden with lacunae.” On their comically anticlimactic daytrips to see otters and ruined architecture, he leaves her wondering whether he’s inexpertly wooing her, mentoring her, or setting her up for something else altogether. Her sexual fantasies and frustrations accumulate: “It seemed she had acquired all the drawbacks of being a mistress and none of the advantages.”
Humor has always been one of Atkinson’s sharpest tools, but Juliet’s levity is an exceptionally endearing mix of naïveté, curiosity, and thoughtful cynicism: a portrait of a young woman finding herself amid a strange new world. When she is warned of overeating and getting fat, she muses that “the unfathomable hollow inside her would never be filled.” When yet another man asks her to clean up after a mess not of her making, she bemoans the plight of women and imagines Jesus rising from his tomb and telling his mother, “Can you tidy it up a bit back there?”
As the dramatic and moral stakes escalate, with more actors and more dangerous roles for Juliet to play (this is a spy novel, after all), the many Shakespeare references remind us that all the world is, indeed, a stage. Life requires performance and subterfuge, in war as well as in peace. Juliet’s monster to overcome could very well be truth, and the “hideous act,” it turns out, will involve further deceit. When we return to 1950, with the reemergence of Godfrey and other ghosts from her past, we find Juliet producing a BBC radio show called Past Lives that re-enacts important epochs in history. Struggling with the artifice of the work even as she remains involved in espionage (though now with ambivalent loyalties), she wonders at one point, “Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception”?
The answer is clearly yes, but one of Transcription’s few disappointments (along with some overly coincidental and murky plotting in its latter half) is its vagueness on Juliet’s complicated attraction to the game—to the past, in fact. In a world where truth and identity are slippery, becoming a spy enables her to hide but also find herself. When Perry’s operation ends first in anticlimax, she muses regretfully: “the war stretched ahead, unknown, and yet it felt as if all the drama of it was over.” The real drama was about to come, of course, and will end up traumatizing her, but out of that, the novel seems to draw a rather conventional arc for her character: from naïveté, to horror, and finally to disillusionment. But disillusionment with what, exactly? By the end, most of the mysteries and loose ends are resolved, and there’s even the suggestion—not all that convincing or compelling—that patriotism, nobility, even idealism had something to do with her service. Is this the same Juliet we’ve come to know, at once the innocent and the cynic, captivated and shaped by an unknowable, now distant world?
Like Atkinson, Michael Ondaatje has also found rich literary terrain in World War II, but he indulges more deeply and extravagantly in the murkiness of identity and the past. His Booker Prize winner from 1992, The English Patient, is set at a villa in Italy during the Italian Campaign and involves four very different characters sifting through one another’s memories. Two have physical injuries, and the other two are caretakers of a kind, but all four are in psychic pain, and the novel’s plangent poetry comes from the intermingling of their memories, the timelessness of their sorrows mirroring the legacy of the war.
Including The English Patient, four of Ondaatje’s seven novels take place in the first half of the twentieth century. Even The Cat’s Table, published in 2011 and set on an ocean liner in 1954, evokes a gauzy, sepia-tinged time as it follows the three-week journey of an eleven-year-old boy named Michael from Sri Lanka to England. Despite similarities to Ondaatje’s own life, the autobiographical spirit of the novel comes more from the intimacy of its retrospective, first-
person narrator and the immersive nostalgia of his experiences with the various misfits on board the ship. He tells us, “It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me.”
Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, appears at first to operate along similar lines. We begin in London with a striking opening sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” Nathaniel, the narrator, is almost fourteen, and his sister, Rachel, is nearly sixteen. Their father has been promoted to the Unilever office in Singapore, and their mother will follow him there. They’ll be gone for only a year, they claim. “Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises,” Nathaniel says as their parents’ sudden departure leaves him and his sister mystified and quietly bereft. They’re shipped off to boarding school but soon escape, finding unexpected refuge with their two caretakers, whom they nickname “The Moth” and “The Darter.”
The former is Walter, their third-floor lodger, “a humble man, large but mothlike in his shy movements.” He introduces them to a vibrant postwar world on the streets and invites into their home an assortment of disreputable characters, one of whom is Norman, the Pimlico Darter, a former boxer who now smuggles greyhounds through London’s waterways at night. The men’s other friends—and lovers—also captivate Nathaniel: “The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”
He and his sister are soon absorbed into the men’s lives. Rachel draws closer to the Moth and with his help finds a job at the theater, where stage work fascinates her. The Moth also gets work for Nathaniel at the Criterion Hotel, whose largely immigrant staff he oversees, and there Nathaniel discovers the allures of blue-
collar life, storytelling, and women. Soon, he also becomes an eager accomplice in the Darter’s smuggling expeditions. For he and his sister, their days and nights become “wondrous doorways into the world.”
Like Transcription, Warlight is essentially a bildungsroman. Its first hundred pages read like a diary of formative memories, with Nathaniel, now a twenty-eight-year-old man, reflecting on an adolescence invigorated by abandonment and then strangeness and adventure. Ondaatje’s writing style has always been impressionistic, a collage of visual metaphors that evoke the intensity and intimacy of memory. It’s out of such imagery that Nathaniel comes to life for us: a romantic but alert young man, eager to understand and defy the unknown. There’s him with the Darter on “the moonless night river,” “quieting an orchestra” of dogs with a simple head gesture. There’s the Darter after Rachel’s first epileptic seizure, holding her in his arms on the floor, then smoking a cigarette. There’s Nathaniel and his first girlfriend in a cavernous mansion, making love on the floor as greyhounds gallop through the empty rooms:
Car lights filled a window and I saw Agnes naked to the waist with a hound hanging off her hip…a sacred moment in my life I carry secure within whatever few memories I hold from that time, filed and labelled in that half-completed way.”
But then the plot takes a disastrous turn. A kidnapping takes place, then a rescue that leaves no one unscathed: “Where were we going? Into another life.” Nathaniel and Rachel learn that their mother, Rose, is actually a spy, and though she has tried to protect them, her work has brought about yet another tragic upheaval in their lives. From here, Ondaatje overturns his narrative of nostalgia and reveals a larger story of reclamation for Nathaniel. All the previous memories have been cradled uneasily within a legacy of loss and unanswered questions. In the wake of his mother’s fateful return and Rachel’s withdrawal from them both, Nathaniel lives a few peaceful but guarded years with Rose until her sudden, mysterious death, which leaves her an even bigger riddle. A decade later, he joins her profession. Sifting through wartime files for British Intelligence and assessing everyone’s “instinct to destroy certain truths of war,” he also unearths obscure references to his mother and the people in her covert life. Slowly, he tracks down as many figures from her and his own past as he can and begins stitching together a fuller picture of the “confused and vivid dream of my youth.”
Warlight—like Transcription—is also essentially a spy novel, and Ondaatje is masterful in his development of menace and intrigue, his deployment of moments of revelation and catharsis. All spy fiction inevitably wrestles with the fluid nature of truth and identity, and both Warlight and Transcription fashion thrilling plots around this struggle, which is also a struggle with the past and its ambiguities. But unlike Juliet, who searches for answers out of fear, Nathaniel’s search is a creative undertaking, an act of supreme empathy. Near the end of Rose’s life, he thinks: “It had taken me a while to realize that I would in some way have to love my mother in order to understand who she now was and what she had really been.” After her death, one by one, the obscure figures from his youth are reconstructed and brought to vivid, at times heartbreaking life, as though he is the book’s author himself, using facts here and there and an imagination animated by longing, confusion, and ultimately compassion.
What Nathaniel does in Warlight is precisely what historical fiction, at its most resonant, accomplishes: It reimagines a world that has already been lived, fills in the vast gaps with fantasy, and brings that fantasy to life with the urgency of emotional truth. In that sense, Nathaniel is a stand-in for the writer and the reader alike, full of that same longing for the past and that same need to illuminate its endless hidden corridors.
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.