Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Published By: Doubleday Books
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.
Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.
Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country’s most exceptional writers.
What I Say:
“She believed that England could be a better country. She was the apple ripe for plucking and she also had been Eve willing to eat the apple.”
The publication of a Kate Atkinson novel is always a huge event in the Book World. Transcription was being hailed as extraordinary long before its publication date on September 6th last week. I knew I wanted to read it having heard so many things about it, and there was a huge publicity buzz on Twitter and Instagram. I was delighted to finally receive my copy and decided to flick through a few pages just to get a feel for it.
The thing that no one is saying openly about Transcription is this.
Once you read the opening page, it is simply impossible to put down.
The action moves between 1940, 1950 and 1981. We meet Juliet Armstrong as an eighteen year old living in London. She is selected from her routine governmental role and is recruited by MI5 to work for them. Her job is transcribe the conversations between a group of people called The Fifth Columnists and an agent called Godfrey Toby, who is pretending to be a Gestapo Agent, and is trying to see what intelligence they have. This group is completely taken in by Godfrey, and believe that he has direct links to Nazi Germany, and that they will be rewarded for their efforts to thwart Britain’s war effort.
I thought that it was interesting that for a novel set in World War Two, that the most powerful weapons for Juliet and her colleagues are words. The ones spoken by The Fifth Columnists, the transcripts that Juliet has, and the things that the agents say to each other, which can determine the course of action and their lives by a single sentence.
Juliet understands the importance of what she is being asked to do, but is also completely confused by the behaviour of Perry, her boss. Juliet is attracted to him, and on the one hand he wants to take her out on dates to get to know her better (by the way if a man asks you to go looking for otters, believe me, stay at home!), but on the other hand acts with a complete detached indifference to her. She wants to be seduced, loved and adored, so she is absolutely baffled when he proposes and then they lie next to each other in bed with Perry pointedly staying as far away as possible from her! Juliet’s bewilderment and frustration at Perry’s lack of interest are a joy to read – the reason for which is revealed in a series of poignant moments later in the novel..
Juliet’s obvious skill and intelligence means that she is given a much more testing task by MI5 – she and an older lady called Mrs Ambrose have to infiltrate a far more sinister group of Nazi sympathisers who are led by the mysterious Mrs Scaife. For the first time, Juliet has to go completely undercover, with a new identity and history, and entrap Mrs Scaife. Juliet’s resilience and determination mean that she plays a pivotal role in ensuring she and her cohorts are eventually arrested.
For me, throughout Transcription runs an interesting paradox. Juliet is obviously capable and proficient at the tasks she is given from MI5, and pushes herself and puts her life in danger to ensure she does what she is asked. However, we also see that she is never treated completely as an equal – she is asked to make tea, clean up, or make herself busy in the kitchen when important decisions are being made. She may be putting her life on the line, but at the end of the day, she is still a woman in a very male dominated world.
After the adrenaline rush and sense of achievement she gets from helping Mrs Scaife get arrested, Juliet goes back to transcribing the ramblings of the Fifth Columnists, and seems to accept that her thrilling days of espionage are over.
That is until one day, a door left slightly ajar in the Dolphin Square flat means that Juliet’s life will never be the same again, and she has to do things to survive that she never would have thought possible.
After her services are no longer required at MI5, Juliet starts work at the BBC and becomes a producer, making programmes for schools and dealing with an array of characters and incidents. After a strange encounter on the street with Godfrey Toby, who denies ever having met her, Juliet finds herself slowly drawn back into the world of espionage. She meets faces from her past and actively seeks out the Fifth Columnists to see what happened to them. At certain points, we see a steely determination and a completely dispassionate side to Juliet as she tracks down the members of the group, and start to understand that there may be more to her than we think.
This is where the shift in the story becomes more and more sinister. Is Juliet simply an instrument of the state, bound by a sense of duty to her country and her government, or is there another side to her that we have not been aware of all along?
Transcription may at first glance seem to be simply an espionage novel, with a plucky young heroine who does what she has to do for the war effort to ensure that Britain is the victor in the Second World War. However, that would not come close to doing this astouding novel the justice it deserves.
It is a novel about so many different things. The power of language and words, of what is said, and what is not, about the grim reality of war and how when we are pushed to our limits, we can do far more than we ever believed possible.
Kate Atkinson’s mastery at drawing us in from the first page and keeping us there until the last, with a beautifully understated ending, means that Transcription is a novel you will want to read, then read again to scour the pages for what you missed the first time.
As Juliet is told about espionage: “If you are going to tell a lie, tell a good one.”
I loved it.