Transcriptionby Kate Atkinson Published 25 Sep 2018
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
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 sympathizers, 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 forever.
Ten years later, now a radio 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 the best writers of our time.
As this novel opens, it is 1981, Juliet Armstrong is 60 years old, and while she was distracted by her thoughts, she was struck by a car when she attempted to cross the street. Her story comes through in a series of jumps between 1940 and 1950 before landing back in 1981 again.
In 1940 at the tender age of 18, Juliet is recruited by MI5 to work on transcribing taped conversations between one of MI5’s agents disguised as a subversive and several informants. There are short excerpts from these transcriptions throughout the 1940 portions of the novel.
In 1950, the war is over, although the aftermath lingers. Especially in the world of MI5, where spying on whatever enemies exist continues. Juliet’s everyday life has changed, however. She is involved in the production of several radio programs for school children. However, as Juliet discovers, one is never entirely free of the spy business. Once a part of MI5, always a part of MI5. Maybe. Unless . . .
One of Juliet’s thoughts from 1981: The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were enemies again. The Germans the same – the great enemy, the worst of all of them, and now they were our friends, one of the mainstays of Europe. It was all such a waste of breath. War and peace. Peace and war. It would go on forever without end.
Of the many things I have always admired about Kate Atkinson’s writing, one in particular stands out: how brilliant it is. We experience first-hand the intelligence and rapid-fire brain synapses of Juliet Armstrong right from the beginning. Although she is resigned to always being the one expected to clean up, to get the tea, and other “female tasks” like typing up the transcripts, her mind is always working at the speed of light and she both sees and knows far more than she would ever let on. And people notice.
The author’s notes at the end of this story are wonderful. Ms Atkinson describes where real situations and events from the war years are blended with the fictional story she is telling. It is virtually seamless, and if someone had said this is a true story, I wouldn’t question it for a moment.
This is an ingeniously plotted story, and I felt instant kinship with Juliet Armstrong – even at the same time that I was bowled over by her intellect. Her relationships with her fellow co-workers and those in the hierarchy above her were fascinating and had me feeling by turns loftier and humbled.
Although this is not what I would describe as a “funny book”, it was overflowing with humour and entertaining situations. I laughed out loud a few times, and I also felt sad a few times because there is also pathos here.
Kate Atkinson’s writing in this novel gave me a strong urge to immediately pick up another one of her books. Fortunately, I do have a few that I have not yet read, and I hope to read some of them in 2019. In the meantime, this finely crafted novel will have to hold me – and it definitely has the strength to do so.
Great historical fiction in the world of British espionage in WW2 and the repercussions that emerge in the 1950s. Touches on issues of class in spying circles, being gay, the monitoring of fascists, a young Juliet, recruited to engage in the process of transcription that develops into so much more. Then some time after the war, Juliet is now a BBC radio producer and sees a familiar face that refuses to acknowledge her leading to the entry of a host of familiar figures from the past. There are so many great reviews on this, so I will limit myself to saying this is complex storytelling that I found thoroughly absorbing, enjoyable and immersive historical fiction.
Not all of Kate Atkinson’s novels have been what she calls historical fiction, but the last several have been. This novel may hew closest to the truth, though like she says in the Author’s Note at the end, she wrenched open history and stuffed it with imaginative reconstruction, at least one fantasy for each fact.
The author tells us afterward what her intentions were: we have questions—that’s inevitable—and instead of farming out possible answers to various reviewers, she’s just blunt with us what we’d been wondering about. There is something comparable in theatre, when the actors takes off their masks for the final bow and we all celebrate together.
Atkinson returns to the Second World War, periodic releases from the National Archives of secrets from that time fueling her creative process. When she discovers [true fact] an ordinary-seeming bank clerk was a major cog in rounding up British supporters of Nazis, her story had a frame. When she discovered [true fact] hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts of conversations of dissident groups in London, her story had a heart.
What Kate Atkinson does is not necessarily unique (using historical documents to create fiction), but what she does with it is unique. Her style, tone, and characters are recognizably hers. She is funny: one knows there are people out there whose droll delivery of witty responses to ordinary questions is quintessentially British but we don’t come across it enough. Atkinson can do repartee.
By now Atkinson may be incapable now of writing a straightforward fiction with a chronological timeline. This novel has only three time periods to work with and really only one central character, which simplifies the action enough that I only had to reread an earlier section once. This was partly due to my surprise, maybe a little resentment, and finally pleasure at being taken out of the action at what seemed like a critical moment…again! She’d done that to me in the previous section as well. I was burrowed in like a tick, and am yanked to a later, earlier, whatever time. Atkinson manages to satisfy and confound a reader at the same time.
Atkinson’s characters always have the ‘ghost of Jackson Brodie’ about them. This is a very good thing, considering how much we liked Brodie and wouldn’t mind having him resurrected. We could make the case that the main character in this novel, Juliet Armstrong, is a female Jackson Brodie—honest and therefore vulnerable, she doesn’t have so high an opinion of herself that she is insufferable. In the end she is well able to take care of herself. She’s smart, and a very good liar, but keeps herself a little distant. After all, who can one trust?
At eighteen, Juliet is parentless: "her mother's death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief." Young and alone, Juliet was not, however, callow. She lied like crazy through a job interview with a flippant and overly-inquisitive young man who interviewed her for a job, which she was surprised she got. Later she learned he'd known every lie, and appreciated the ease with which she misled him.
This book is about spies, spies working in the service of the British government, or so we believe. What is special is that we see what is British about them—what is ordinary, patriotic, courageous, honorable. But we also see a nation at war and we see duplicity, hunger, ambition, pettiness. Then we lay over that the work of the other nations at war, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and a few exceptional people emerge alive, not unscathed, but breathing at the end. The tension comes when we are not sure who will remain standing.
Atkinson writes about the middle of the twentieth century, but she could be talking about the twenty-first:
Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones, Perry said.”)One always senses the intelligence in Atkinson’s work. She not only writes a good story which means getting the humanity right, she makes us think while we read. She’s unpredictable. And frankly, I like her politics. It’s always a pleasure to enjoy another of her books.
Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.
“May I tempt you?” This question is the impetus which shifts a very young woman from a job merely transcribing traitorous conversations deliberately overheard during WWII in London into a bonafide spy. Working at the BBC ten years, later her misdeeds of the past come back to haunt her. For a novel about espionage, I found the characters to be rather dull and the plot lacking in tension.
Atkinson is one of my favorite authors and, with Transcription, she has moved her star even higher. The tale is set in England, primarily London, in 1940, 1950 and 1981. The pivotal events occur in 1940, when Juliet Armstrong at 18, is recruited for the war effort. But not for any battle-related job, no. She is to file and type. Soon she is recruited further as a transcriptionist for an MI5 developed cause, to reel in and control English Fifth Column citizens, those who sympathize with the Nazis.
While the outline of the story may appear relatively simple, in Atkinson’s hands and with her wonderful verbal skills, the tale becomes one of identity in a much-changed world, reality vs multiple other possible realities, issues of truth or whether there is truth, and the ever present layers of deception in Juliet’s new world. As in other of her novels, there are questions of self and reality along the way, though tackled in a more concrete way than the last two novels.
These are just some of my favorite lines/quotes scattered throughout the book.
Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation.
We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.
( loc 4836 )
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always
be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
( loc 60)
Older men of a certain type were drawn to her. They
seemed to want to improve her in some way. Juliet was
almost thirty and didn’t feel she needed much more
Improvement. The war had seen to that. (loc 152)
It was a terrible place really, but she was predisposed
towards it. It was a thread in the labyrinth, one that she
could follow back to the world before the war, to her self
before the war. Innocence and experience butting up
against each other in the greasy fug of Moretti’s.
That is me, she thought, I am crushed by loss. “Don’t seek
out elaborate metaphors,” her English teacher had said of
her school essays, but her mother’s death had revealed
that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief.
It was a terrible thing and demanded embellishment.
And one final quote.
Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on
what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless
pits of evil. The war still seemed like a matter of
inconvenience rather than a threat. (loc 945)
I believe these samples give an idea of the spark behind the prose of this novel.
Atkinson provides an interesting Author’s Note outlining the inspirations and sources used before imagination and artistic license took over. She also provides a bibliography relevant to the war years, MI5, etc.
I wholeheartedly recommend this novel.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.