Transcriptionby 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.
If you've only read a couple of Kate Atkinson novels, you may think she does just one thing. She doesn't. In fact, I tend to get a little miffed when she sticks with one thing for too long because I want to see her stretch out in every direction. When I started TRANSCRIPTION and realized we were back in WWII (major setting of her last two novels) I thought, "Nooooooooo not again," but I couldn't have been more wrong. This isn't a follow-up to LIFE AFTER LIFE or A GOD IN RUINS in any significant way. This, my friends, is a spy novel and a real juicy one at that. But it does have the one Atkinson trademark, where you finish it feeling like you've read a fancy literary novel while still indulging in real genre thrills.
We start in 1950 where Juliet is moving towards spinsterhood with a rather dull job producing children's educational radio shows for the BBC. A chance encounter with someone from her past in MI5 sets off a long flashback to 1940. Juliet is barely an adult when she's brought in to do secretarial work for the government as so many women did during the war. She ends up, seemingly through sheer happenstance, taking on a covert job as a transcriptionist, listening in on a British spy who is undercover among German sympathizers. It starts out as dull work but soon Juliet is roped into taking on a larger role in the operation. For a while we move back and forth between these two times, learning more about what Juliet did for MI5 during the war and following her growing paranoia a decade later as she suspects that someone is after her for what she did back then.
This isn't exactly a traditional thriller, though the tension is expertly managed, mostly by the way Atkinson toys with the reader. She can turn on a dime, and Juliet's wry outlook on the world provides a healthy helping of humor amid the growing suspense. It's not just a suspenseful spy novel, it's building a whole world for Juliet to live in, which makes the spy part work even better. When you can see all the little players everywhere, you start to wonder if all of them are who they say they are and just what there may be below the surface behind any face, any front door, any shop window.
It was a joy to read, I sped through it, and honestly I'm not sure I could have ordered up a Kate Atkinson novel right now that would have hit that Kate Atkinson-y spot so nicely.
Atkinson returns to WWII again for her newest novel but it is not a sequel to her wonderful A God in Ruins book. In this one, 18 year old Juliet is hired to be be a spy for MI-5 but not a glamorous one. She sits in a small apartment transcribing conversations of British citizens who think they are reporting to a German spy. They are traitors but on such a small scale that it is almost laughable.
The story flashes between 1940 and her activities and 1950 where she has become the producer of dull BBC stories for schoolkids. It is alarming for her when some of the people she worked with in the 40's start making appearances in her new life. They don't deal directly with her and, at times, deny they know her. The juxtaposition of the two time periods keeps the story taut and tantalizing.
Atkinson admits she made up most of the history but her research is so good that you never know which are real facts and which are fiction. It is irrelevant because the points she is making are the ones that are important. It is alarming how much rings true to our political situation today. Two points that really stood out to me are:
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.”)
Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.
Now who does that sound like? It's chilling.
This book cries out for a discussion. I would love to sit down with a group of friends discussing this book. It is a book that was meant to be talked about and shared. I would love to know what others thought about several of Juliet's kinks. I can't wait until there is a group discussion I can join.
Thanks to Net Galley for a copy of the is book in exchange for a fair review.
How do you reinvent yourself when your old job was inventing identities? Our protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, vulnerable after her beloved mother’s death, was recruited into the MI5 in 1940, when she was just eighteen. Before she was mature enough to forge her own coherent convictions, she was trained in the art of duplicity, impenetrability; her individual identity was subsumed in her patriotic one.
Now, in 1950, working as a producer for the BBC, and having left the Secret Service behind her, can she distinguish between her idealism of ten years ago and the person she is now? Through Juliet, Atkinson explores the weight of idealism and the psyche of selfhood, as well as the ghosts that confront your present with the choices of your past.
As the protagonist muses, “And there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”
The title of the novel refers to Juliet’s main occupation in counter-espionage, to covertly transcribe the conversations of a motley group of Fascist sympathizers who think they are meeting weekly with an agent of the German government. However, these “fifth column” traitors are kept from spreading their “evil deeds” by one of MI5’s agents, an enigmatic man himself, who convinces these men and women that their cause is moving forward. Next door, Juliet is challenged by the ambient noise, a yapping dog owned by one of the members, and the limits of the listening devices that connect her to their voices. Sometimes, transcribing the conversations forces her to read between the lines.
I recently finished Red, White, Blue by Lea Carpenter, an American novel that pairs the psyche and duplicity of spies with the grief that the protagonist suffers after the death of her father, who worked for the CIA. Both novels’ protagonists suffer loss of a parent, and the grief abuts their connection to the work of deception and patriotism. Although Carpenter’s character is not an agent herself, that novel bolstered my understanding in TRANSCRIPTION, to how idealism and identity are both hand-in-hand and adversaries.
“That eager-to-please…girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never come back.” And, in her interview for the MI5--“It had been a lie, of course. Her mother hadn’t been well, not at all, in fact she had been dying,… but Juliet had preferred the subterfuge of her mother’s health.”
Atkinson’s trademark levity, her droll wit and finesse, is consistently on display in TRANSCRIPTION. Although Juliet is often humorous and self-deprecating, her serious moments have teeth, and I could feel them biting at my back, both her fear and her determination. The ghosts from her past possessed a comic presence and a haunting undertone. The author seamlessly yokes the buoyant Juliet with poignancy and grit. Terror and danger is balanced with jaunt and nonchalance.
The story also contains striking italicized phrases that pop out of Juliet’s thoughts--some of them like a refrain that periodically arise while gathering heat, others known by the reader to have meaning, and still others offhand at first, then carrying more sinister weight. Many phrases are cryptic, but you know they must be loaded, despite their insouciance. That is Atkinson’s exquisite nuance at work. They become like iron fillings collecting on the table—you know there is a magnet underneath. Atkinson kept me going from point to precipice.
“It was the war…it has made refugees of us all.”
“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.
I am a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s wonderful storytelling and for me Transcription was a pure joy from the moment I started it until the moment I reluctantly set it aside.
The writing is genuinely superb, beautifully done and I adored Juliet, her manner, her acerbic inner dialogue and her highly intriguing yet strangely genteel existence.
The setting and the time brought to utterly vivid life, we follow Juliet as she becomes part of the war effort, gets entangled in intrigue and faces unknowable consequences years later. The pace is sedate yet entirely compelling, Juliet is incredibly engaging and the lines between fact and fiction blur into one addictively riveting tale.
Transcription is a literary delight, a tranquil pond in the middle of a storm, often unexpected, emotionally resonant and pitched perfectly throughout. I loved it, the ending had me teary eyed and this is one of those books where I know I will miss those fictional yet honestly authentic characters for months to come.
Magic. Highly Recommended.