Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

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 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.

“No other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson. I look forward to a new Atkinson book like I look forward to Christmas…what lends the novel enchantment is that patented Atkinson double whammy: gravity and levity. Tragedy and comedy as so skilfully entwined that you find yourself snorting with mirth…brimming with dark wit that reminds you how deeply satisfying good fiction can be.” (Alison Pearson, Sunday Telegraph).

I couldn’t have expressed my thoughts on a new Kate Atkinson novel more clearly than Alison Pearson does above. I’ve been very aware of her new novel Shrines of Gaiety approaching and as a huge fan of her work there is always that push and pull between wanting to read it immediately and being scared of opening it in case I don’t like it. It actually took me well over a year to read Transcription. I think it was because of how much I loved and felt emotionally connected to brother and sister Teddy and Ursula, from Life After Life and A God In Ruins. The latter genuinely made me weep for a character who wasn’t real. When I finally resolved to give it a go it didn’t grab my attention immediately and I worried, but it did impress me with its historical detail and the extreme setting of wartime London. The feel of Juliet’s various workplaces were so well described I could almost smell them – that dusty, old paper smell of offices. There is a strange feeling of truth and fiction overlapping all the time. In interview, Atkinson says that places and characters are complete inventions, but her inventions are informed by the real things. This is the crux of this novel, nothing is what it seems, not even the words on the page.

This is one of those books where I really had to concentrate to follow the story, but I’m not claiming to have picked up all the clues that were there. Other reviewers have claimed to have seen clues quite early on that suggested how Juliet Armstrong’s personal viewpoints were formed and where this placed her allegiances. Concentration is also vital towards the end of the novel where there’s a lot of flitting back and forth and I struggled at times to keep track of who was who. I was reduced to reading sections a couple of times to establish a character in my mind, although their allegiances were another story. Most work for MI5 so none of them are ever what they seem, and just because of where may work, whether for a person or organisation, it doesn’t mean their sympathies are truly with that cause? Everyone is hiding something, whether in their personal or working life. Peregrine Gibbons isn’t just deceiving others, when it comes to his sexuality he’s deceiving himself too. Oliver Alleyne could be working for any organisation and Juliet doesn’t trust him from the off, but isn’t she hiding her true self too? The dog shows the most loyalty, depending on who owns it at the time of course. Again truth and fiction collide as Kate Atkinson references real operatives from within the service, some of which are well known. Those incredibly well-educated Oxbridge men, hiding both their homosexuality and their allegiances towards Russia, possibly based on Philby and McLean.

I feel that Atkinson presents Juliet as a sympathetic character. I think we were supposed to like her, but who is the real Juliet? I found myself admiring her ability to become other characters and her lying is almost a compulsion. She also steals very well. We shouldn’t trust her and if I met her in real life I’d probably dislike her so it’s a strange psychological trick the author is pulling off. Juliet Armstrong is, of course, an orphan recruited by MI5 during WW2. It was her headmistress who recommended Juliet to a man she knew in the service. We are never told whether she was also an agent, but she assured Juliet that “they need girls like you” whether that refers to her orphan status, her education, or her natural deceptive tendencies we are never told. I loved the way her mind worked. Her brain has two specific tics: she automatically finds rhymes for the words she hears; if she hears an expression her mind conjures up the literal meaning, so ‘cat got your tongue?’ becomes a disgusting picture in her brain. When the service moved her away from transcription to infiltration of a right-wing group, I thought they were perhaps based on an Oswald Mosley type figure and his supporters, a subject I’ve lays been interested in. A lot of women were recruited at this time, but from other books I have read recently such as The Whalebone Theatre they usually had excellent bilingual language skills or mathematical abilities. We’re not sure exactly what Juliet brings to the table, but maybe that’s her gift.

The novel moves around in time, from the war to the 1950s and as late as the 1980s. I was constantly wondering if she’d really ever stopped working for MI5. She works for the BBC in schools broadcasting, a section that contained an element of humour, but even so old loyalties and memories of her wartime adventures start to intrude. Could she still be working behind the scenes? Atkinson has used incredible sleight of hand with her ending, showing that nothing is as it seems in the intelligence community. We can never be sure of anyone’s true loyalties and just as Juliet’s typewritten words are merely a representation of what’s happening next door, any book about the Secret Service is merely a representation, no matter how well researched. I felt very aware that I was only reading one version of story, where all the different strands are as complicated as a tapestry. This book is best read in long sessions so as not to lose the threads. It rewards the reader with a heroine as intriguing, complex and intelligent as the story.

Meet The Author


Kate Atkinson is an international bestselling novelist, as well as playwright and short story writer. She is the author of Life After Life; Transcription; Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner; the story collection Not the End of the World; and five novels in the Jackson Brodie crime series, which was adapted into the BBC TV show Case Histories.

Author:

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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