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.
“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.
Oh I had high hopes for this one. A Kate Atkinson spy novel set during World War II sounded like a winning formula to me. Indeed, the reviews of Transcription have been full of praise. But I reckon it is one of her lesser works, not reaching the heights of Life After Life or the majestic A God in Ruins.
In 1941, Juliet Stephenson is 18 years old, naive and unsophisticated. Everything changes when she is recruited by MI5. Her new job consists of listening to the recorded conversations of Nazi sympathisers and transcribing them for her superiors. Gradually she becomes more involved in the spy world, taking part in some dangerous operations herself. Years later Juliet is working for the BBC when she starts to receive anonymous notes, saying "You will pay for what you did." Just what did she get up to during the war and is her past about to catch up with her?
Atkinson has clearly done an immense amount of research for this novel. The transcribed conversations that punctuate the story and the period detail of wartime London all make it feel very authentic. However, I couldn't really warm to Juliet. She proves herself untrustworthy and she can be quite sarcastic, especially in her BBC role. Also, the endless pining for her colleague Perry particularly annoyed me for some reason. Perhaps this is why I found it difficult to become invested in her fate. The number of indistinguishable secret agents that she worked with didn't help things either. But I also think that the story lacks the emotional heft that is a hallmark of Atkinson's best work. Transcription is not a bad novel. There are plenty of secrets and surprises, and the ending is stylishly executed. But for a writer of Kate Atkinson's calibre, I expect a lot more.
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.
In not a big fan of spy novels, just not my genre, so maybe that was my problem with this book. I really expected to be blown away because, after all, it IS Kate Atkinson, but I never really connected with the main character, or any other character. I truly didn't care what happened to them, and it felt like only half my brain was engaged while reading. Having said that, there were some surprising twists and turns at the end, but, again, I just didn't care.
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.