Doubleday | 2018 (6 September) | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1940 Juliet Armstrong, a young woman of just 18 years old, is recruited by the secret service to monitor a group of Fifth Columnists. They regularly meet in London and are led by Godfrey Toby, a man they believe to be a Nazi spy but who is in fact working for the British secret service. It will be Juliet’s job to transcribe their bugged and recorded conversations, a task that both bores and thrills Juliet. She also wants to impress her boss, the enigmatic and curious Peregrine Gibbons. But soon Juliet is given a more active role, undercover, becoming perilously involved with the fascists she must spy upon.
In 1950 the war is long over but any hopes that Juliet might have that the past is behind her are terrifyingly crushed. The work of the secret service continues, fighting a different kind of war with a new enemy, and Juliet, now a producer working at the BBC, is about to get entangled again. She begins to see faces from the past and she knows that they are due a reckoning.
I fell in love with Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I knew that Transcription, a novel I’ve longed to read, would be every bit as good and I was not disappointed. This is an author who writes literary fiction that is also accessible, warm and wise, witty and clever, despairing and loving – and Transcription confirms all of this. A thrilling and compelling plot is wrapped up in a time-shifting, multi-layered narrative in which Juliet’s life, and all of the people who made it what it was, is revealed before us. It demands an emotional response from the reader while at the same time he or she will marvel at just how much there is to be found in this book. It’s an extraordinary achievement for so much to be packed in to a novel shorter than 350 pages.
I’m so pleased that Kate Atkinson returned to the Second World War for Transcription. I can’t get enough of World War Two spy thrillers at the moment and so this was perfectly timed and reminded me in such a good way of the pleasure I recently had reading Our Friends in Berlin. On the surface Transcription is a fine war thriller but it also digs deeply into the motivations of people who desperately want to retain for themselves their inner beliefs. Much here is suppressed, whether it’s a political allegiances or an affair of the heart. This is a time of secrets and a time when people were paid to hunt them out.
Juliet is a wonderful main character. Her youth initially marks her out as almost naive and there’s much pleasure to be had in the chapters in which she tries to make sense of the conversations she is transcribing. These transcriptions can be found throughout the book, reinforcing the historical context of the novel while also lifting the mood. And that is arguably what the book is about – how do you transcribe people? How do you work them out when there is so much interference between you and them? For Juliet has so much more to understand than the words of Fifth Columnists.
Juliet is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters, some larger than life, others quietly existing in the background, others whose lives are pinched out. It’s fascinating as well as tense watching these relationships work themselves out.
Kate Atkinson’s writing is so beautiful. It’s elegant and warm. It reflects how well she understands the people she has brought to life, their aspirations and their fears. And yet wit and elegance can hide something else far darker and this is shown so well in the contrast between the politeness and manners of many of the novel’s characters with the ugliness of some of their secret thoughts and the brutal actions that they can spur. This is war after all.
The novel takes place over several years, moving backwards and forwards between them, and so it pays to stay alert. This is a book that rewards the reader – there are moments here that astounded me as well as others that profoundly moved me.
Kate Atkinson is consistently one of the very finest authors around today – very clever but also accessible – and Transcription demonstrates yet again why. Don’t miss it. I must also mention that the hardback, complete with ribbon, is a thing of beauty.