“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

The Alice NetworkWhen last week’s book proved to be a little too much of-the-moment, I decided to retreat into the past and read a pair of historical novels. Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network offers kind of an “if you think things are bad now…” perspective, since it features two alternating storylines, one set during World War I and the other in the aftermath of World War II.

Charlie St. Clair is a young American from a wealthy family, pregnant and unmarried. Her mother is taking her to a clinic to Switzerland so Charlie can have a discreet abortion. Charlie has other plans, though; when their ocean liner stops in Southampton, she escapes her mother’s watchful eye in order to search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who disappeared during the war. All she has is a name and an address: Evelyn Gardiner, 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. Eve worked in a bureau helping to locate refugees after the war, and Charlie has reason to believe she may know something about what happened to Rose.

The book’s second chapter goes back in time 32 years to May 1915. Eve is twenty-two but looks much younger; a stammer gives the mistaken impression that she’s simple. Her ability to speak fluent French and German gets her recruited to join the Alice Network, a ring of female spies. Her cover story: she’s a French country girl who neither speaks nor understands German. She gets a job as a waitress in German-occupied Lille, working at a posh restaurant owned by the profiteer René Bordelon, who is more than happy to serve the Kommandant and his officers. Her mission is to eavesdrop on the Germans, who have no idea she is absorbing every word they say in order to report it to the brave and resourceful Lili, leader of the network.

From there, we switch between the two stories as Charlie convinces Eve, still deeply scarred by her experiences during World War I, to join her hunt for Rose; and Eve’s adventures behind enemy lines. Both stories are exciting, though not surprisingly, there is a lot of loss, trauma and some descriptions of wartime atrocities that can be painful and difficult to read.

Still, The Alice Network is primarily a story of female bravery and the power of women’s friendship, and isn’t that something we should be celebrating right now? I heartily recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and spy sagas.

TranscriptionMuch of Transcription by Kate Atkinson is set during World War II, but protagonist Juliet Armstrong, a girl of just 18, is not involved in anything as exciting or dangerous as the Alice Network—she is hired by MI5 in 1940 to transcribe recordings of fascist sympathizers’ clandestine meetings. The “fifth column” has been infiltrated by British intelligence, and the London flat in which they meet has microphones hidden in the walls. The conversations, recorded to disc, are dull and often difficult to understand (“‘Oh, do speak clearly,’ Juliet thought crossly.”)

Eventually, Juliet does get to go undercover herself, and things get a bit more intense. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed reading about Juliet’s relationships with her fellow MI5 agents, even though there are so many characters and code names to keep track of that I constantly found myself flipping back and forth in the book. Atkinson must expect her readers to have superhuman memories; for instance, one character begins a sentence on page 10 (“My father was—”), and that thread isn’t picked up again until page 185 (“What was your father, Lester?”).

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem for me, though, but I must admit that I was incredibly disappointed by the ending, which came out of left field and came close to throw-the-book-across-the-room territory. Unfortunately, for that reason alone, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend Transcription, despite the interesting characters and compelling subject matter.

“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.