A secret agent is like a novelist – watching, constantly, but in a clandestine way so that associates don’t suspect the close observation and dissection of their lives. Similarly, a child sent to boarding school learns to watch and fit in, chameleon-like. It makes perfect sense that the author of a boarding school memoir – the wholly compelling Bad Behaviour – would next turn her attention to espionage. Spy work is absolute crack for novelists.
The Imitator – the debut novel from author and Kill Your Darlings literary journal co-founder Rebecca Starford – follows Evelyn in the 1930s and 1940s in England. She secures a scholarship to a boarding school, which opens a fissure between her and her parents, but is where she becomes firm friends with the plain but well-off Sally. Later, Sally is set to marry the kind of dolt who sucks the joy out of every room, but Evelyn has been to Oxford and her future looks unequivocally bright. When Sally’s charismatic father Hugh sets Evelyn up with a job in the War Office, she is swiftly recruited to MI5.
It sounds like an exciting and romantic idea, working as a spy. As it turns out, young women are underused and underappreciated in the junior roles, chewed up and spat out by men who curry favour by claiming responsibility for their juniors’ successes.
Evelyn is soon moved into counterintelligence. Working as a mole, she infiltrates a pro-fascist group that is passing information to the Germans. Out of necessity her activities escalate quickly, but she is still new to the role, and the work itself is risky. She worries that she has to gain a person’s trust, pretending to be someone she isn’t, with the ultimate goal of abusing that trust. Evelyn’s actions will greatly affect the course of people’s lives, and she feels this acutely. Being in the spying business is allowing the reality of that to glance off you, but Evelyn carries it heavily with her.
Alternating with this 1939 time line is Evelyn in 1948, when it is clear that her life has taken a dive, but we don’t know precisely how. Early in the book, it’s noted that Sally has “never been one for the smaller observations of people”; this reflection is pertinent because it points to what Starford specialises in. The narrative is brimming with the small insecurities and uncertainties that make people exclusively themselves. A brief character sketch can be a shorthand for so much.
“He had never been much cowed by class,” Starford writes about Evelyn’s father. “He spent most of his spare time hunched over his newspapers, worried about Europe.” The use of words such as “cowed” and “hunched” describe the time the man is living through, but they also illustrate the man sitting there, as does the choice of using a pronoun: “his newspapers”. Starford’s careful language ensures clarity in each scene, so that reading the book is like looking through newly washed windows.
There are mutterings through the novel of worries about Europe, and fears about what is happening in England – sentiments not dissimilar to those aired in recent Brexit conversations. That so many ordinary citizens had nationalistic tendencies is something we gloss over to our detriment, and it’s fitting to air the darker underside of the wartime story. Through repeated conversations and whispered collusion, Starford shows the complex ways in which patriotism develops into something murky.
Evelyn works alongside Vincent, who straightaway calls her “darling” and who has his own tragic backstory. Friendship is important in this novel because Evelyn’s work involves betrayal, and what is friendship if not an absence of that very thing? Sally’s cousin Julia is a brilliant character: clever, interesting, dashing, good company, and her presence – in marked contrast with steadfast Sally – lights up every scene. Even young Julia is already sophisticated and knowing, and the stark disparity between those born sure and those with doubt becomes more apparent in the novel’s denouement.
When Evelyn visits her parents, the distance between her and them is more acute. Her mother levels that most painful accusation: she thinks Evelyn finds other people more interesting than her own family. What can Evelyn say? The book is very good on the grief of parents and adult children evolving away from each other. This is often complicated by the fact that it is instigated by the parents, who provided opportunities for growth but then find a stranger in their house, with no way of connecting.
There is no darting from one scene to the next in The Imitator; Starford avoids rushing. A character prepares to arrive at a cafe, then shows up and assesses the situation – we see what it looks like, which helps us feel how it must feel to be there – spends their time there, and then we see them gather themselves and leave. Starford works in the details of people’s lives with elegant truth, particularly the minutiae of eating and drinking.
Elements of the book are based on true events and – as is still the case – being protected from the law is about being wealthy and well connected. The descriptions of Earl’s Court, London, flimsy air-raid shelters, Wormwood Scrubs and Bloomsbury convey an authenticity that comes from the particulars of the way people dressed and spoke, those crucial details that define an era and its classes and sensibilities.
A significant theme concerns what we leave behind when we are gone.
“If I were to disappear, she thought, the world would continue just as it always has. Nothing would change. I would have never made an imprint. I would never be remembered.”
This drives at the heart of mortality, but it is also why art is worth making. It would be easy to avoid addressing these difficult questions; the novelists who refuse to do so are rare and precious.
Allen & Unwin, 352 pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Rebecca Starford, The Imitator".
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