Wife. Mother. Spy. A double life is no life at all.
Since the disappearance of her husband in 1951, Laura Leverett has been living in limbo with her daughter in Geneva. All others see is her conventional, charming exterior; nobody guesses the secret she is carrying.
Her double life began years ago, when she stepped onto the boat which carried her across the Atlantic in 1939. Eager to learn and eager to love, she found herself suddenly inspired by a young Communist woman she met on the boat. In London she began to move between two different worlds - from the urbane society of her cousins and their upper-class friends to the anger of those who wanted to forge a new society. One night at a party, she met a man who seemed to her to combine both worlds but who was hiding a secret bigger than she could ever imagine. Impelled by desire, she found herself caught up in his hidden life. Love grew, but so did fear and danger.
This is the warm-blooded story of the Cold War. The story of a wife whose part would take her from London in the Blitz to Washington at the height of McCarthyism to the possible haven of the English countryside. Gradually she learned what was at stake for herself, her husband, and her daughter; gradually she realised the dark consequences of her youthful idealism.
Sweeping and exhilarating, alive with passion and betrayal, A Quiet Life is the first novel from a brilliant new voice in British fiction.
"A tour de force. Walter has taken us inside a life in hiding, in a novel about love, about political ideals and about the entrapment both create." (Linda Grant)
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"The habit of secrecy"
The right title.
Helen Dunmore, "Exposure" and John Le Carre, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to see how varied the espionage novel can be.
Laura Last's decision on whether to leave for Moscow or not.
“She spoke of a great secret.” This startling statement comes from John Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974). For all his brilliance, though, Le Carré can rely on the comforts of genre and anti-genre upon which to build an exciting novel that covers perhaps a few years in the lives of George Smiley and others. In her first novel, Natasha Walter’s interest in gender and espionage (see her essay on the women in the circle of the Cambridge spies, The Guardian, 10/5/2003) leads her to confront the more difficult task of showing how Laura Last, who is based on Melinda Maclean, the wife of Donald Maclean, copes with some fourteen years in the role of a wife and, latterly, a mother in what Le Carré calls “the secret world … here, right in the middle of the real world, all round us”. That world’s history and geography were delineated during the years when Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt … made their political commitments, but the routines of tradecraft and shopping, agents and make-up, as well as a thoughtful understanding of deceit and desire, from a woman’s point of view, have been missing from that world.
The intriguing and eventually compelling premise of “A Quiet Life” is how the mundane and then the sudden, high drama of espionage are interleaved over the years following the meeting of an American woman, Laura Leverett, and a member of the British establishment, Edward Last, in London in 1939. They get married and the novel is perceptive on their complicated continuing relationship; they live through the Blitz, then the post-war years in Washington, when Edward is fairly high up in the diplomatic service; and in the early fifties they return to London before Edward has to flee to Moscow with a fellow spy, Nick, to avoid interrogation by the security services. At this final stage, we follow Laura struggling with a Victoria sponge birthday cake for Edward as the news of the death sentence for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg breaks and MI5 close in on Edward. But more than this: she has been in on his espionage for nearly all of these years and has participated significantly in the risks. However, in the later chapters of the novel, Laura Last faces a set of additional dilemmas: how to handle the media exposure that follows Edward’s departure for Moscow, while keeping her own role secret and enduring being portrayed as a dupe; how to evaluate Edward’s feelings towards her when she barely hears from him for two years (after all, he fled with a man and that relationship is played up in the media); and – most troublingly -- how to weigh up what would be the future for her and their daughter if she was to follow Edward, assuming that she could escape while under MI5 and media surveillance.
Even with the pace of a John Le Carré novel in mind – and he is the slowest and most careful of spy-thriller authors -- there was a point when I feared that the “The Quiet Life” would be simply too slow. However, that would be to misunderstood the task that Natasha Walter sets herself, one that is, in its way, gripping and certainly very important. None of the international dimension is sacrificed: Laura has to cut herself off from her communist and fellow-traveller friends in London in order to meet the requirements of the KGB. She has to think through the shock to supporters of Stalin’s regime of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and then remain quiet on the rehabilitation of the USSR and Uncle Joe later in the War. And then, in Washington, she has to live in an atmosphere of increasing anti-communism, with the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs trials, and that of Klaus Fuchs in the UK. The biggest test – and Walter makes as good a job of it as any of the novelists, journalists and academics who have tried – is to explain what led that group of spies, men and women, to do what they did and to keep doing it, particularly when their KGB handlers were such an uninspiring lot who imposed almost unbearable restrictions upon their agents. Idealism? Money? The excitement of a hidden life? As someone who has written on feminism -- and quite controversially in The New Feminism and then in some ways that bear upon her first novel in Living Dolls -- Walter has an argument, threaded through “A Quiet Life”, that women spend more of their lives keeping secrets than men, and that the protocols of espionage, such as "the matching half", are an extension of the subtleties of everyday conversations and relationships – “the habit of secrecy”, she calls it.
Walter tells the story in the third person but, mostly, avoids pushing a message. At times, though, she is too eager to interpret and these moments are often signaled by a jarring expression: “How gauche would that be” or “she could not read him” or “It would be a project”. And her interest in female sexuality doesn’t quite survive the invariable embarrassment of novelistic sex-scenes, especially those related in the third person. Mostly, however, this is a remarkably accomplished novel.
Charming and intriguing
- Tracy Gribble