I was surprised and intrigued to see that the feminist and humanitarian Natasha Walter who previously only wrote nonfiction has published her first novel. The blurb for “A Quiet Life” explains how it's about a female spy during WWII and I wasn’t sure how a thrilling plot like this would work alongside the author’s compelling ideas about feminism. As it turns out, the main character Laura is not a feminist or especially an intellectual. She doesn’t become a political subversive and spy delivering crucial government secrets to an underground communist network for the Soviet Union because she has particularly high ideals. Rather, she takes on this highly dangerous and controversial work because she’s influenced by a passionate female friend and a man she falls in love with. However, the way in which Walter captures the subtlety of Laura’s psychology, the prevailing ideologies/social attitudes of the era and the crisis of an individual’s political consciousness during times of international conflict is absolutely compelling. It makes Laura a more dynamic subject and her story more engagingly complex than if Walter had chosen to write a whole novel about Florence, Laura’s ardent communist friend. Reading “A Quiet Life” felt to me like reading a novel by Doris Lessing for the way it wholly commits to faithfully representing Laura’s experience in times of political turbulence.
Laura moves to England at the start of 1939 to visit relatives, but really she is trying to escape the confines of her suffocating and damaging family life in the States. On the boat across the Atlantic she meets two people who will affect the rest of her life in crucial ways. She finds it challenging to learn how to live amongst the privilege, manners and social preoccupations of her affluent English relatives. But this well ordered world is in the midst of being thrown into chaos as time progresses and German bombs fall over London. Despite the danger, Laura refuses to return to America and embarks on a course of love and political intrigue which radically destabilizes her future. There are certainly gripping moments as questions arise about who Laura can really trust and if her surreptitious activities will be caught out, but this is more a novel about the tension between her complicity with the social/political structures around her and her rebellion against them.
There is a clear awareness of the limitations imposed upon women in this time period. Laura is highly conscious of how she presents herself physically and acts socially as she “had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.” There is an attention to detail for how Laura uses her sexuality to both meld into her social milieu and manipulate people when needed. At other times there is a frustration for how little women are allowed to participate in social engagements and are seen as only decorative: “The women provided the colour between the black and white of the men’s tuxedos, but that was all they seemed to be there for; these flashes – green, scarlet, blush and blue – between the black coats.” Laura lived through a difficult abusive childhood and is aware of how little she is intellectually valued amongst men. These conflicts play into the complex reasons why she engages in acts of espionage.
It really surprised me how much I personally connected with Laura. She feels distanced from her American upbringing, but she's never able to fully integrate into exclusive social groups in England. Having moved from America to the UK many years ago I found this to be very relatable and wholly believable. There are subtleties in our national differences which can only be felt from prolonged exposure to both cultures and Walter captures these very well. There are also striking moments where Laura overhears what people say about her which collapse the English social niceties and reveal how people really feel about her.
The dilemma for Laura between living a comfortable (quiet) life and making a real difference is palpable throughout. Just what a quiet life means is shown in its full complexity over the course of the novel. There is a life of privilege sheltered from the protests and struggles of people outside that circumscribed world, there is the potential quiet life a couple can find after years of difficult work, alcoholism and conflicts in the relationship have worn them down and there is a quiet life which is disengaged from the politics of the time – a life of simply getting by. Walter creatively and engagingly explores these dilemmas within the story giving a heartfelt account of Laura's struggle to determine what sort of life she really wants. There are also hints of a wholly other life Laura could have had where she might have developed and expressed herself artistically if only she'd come of age in a quiet peaceful time outside of war.
This is an utterly fascinating novel which gives an entirely new perspective of the WWII time period. It's a wholly immersive and wonderful read about a compelling character inspired by the real life of a woman named Melinda Maclean who was suspected (but never proven) to be a Soviet spy.
Here's a brief interview with Natasha Walter about her inspiration for writing the novel: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/12/natasha-walter-a-quiet-life-cambridge-spies-fiction