It’s 1981 and Juliet Armstrong, a lady in her fifties, has been knocked over by a car on her way home from a Shostakovich concert at the Wigmore Hall. Thirty years earlier, she spots an old acquaintance on her way to work at the BBC – an old acquaintance who pretends he doesn’t know her. Ten years before that, she is snapped up by the Secret Service on the back of what is, by anyone’s standards, a rather antagonistic interview performance. We then follow Juliet from Wormwood Scrubs, where she starts out in admin, via a pied-a-terre belonging to one Peregrine Gibbon (where she is asked to transcribe the admittedly dull ramblings of various would-be Nazi collaborators as they are duped by a would-be representative of the Gestapo known as Godfrey Toby) all the way through to being a fully-fledged spy in the service of her majesty’s government.
So far – provided you’ve been keeping up with your Kate Atkinson’s this last few years – so very Kate Atkinson right? There’s gadding about through time a la Life after Life. There’s a big WWII element, a la A God in Ruins. But where both Life after Life and A God in Ruins are relatively straitlaced, relatively sombre, relatively at pains to establish themselves as serious fiction, Transcription – whilst being as vivid a picture of the time as the two previous books – is fun. This is a fun book. You get the sense Atkinson sat down and thought, I’m going to write a book about a female spy. What would that look like? (Ah, you might say, so Transcription is like Sebastian Faulks’ book, Charlotte Gray. No we answer. Transcription is much better than Charlotte Gray.) It is, to all intents and purposes, a Girl’s Own story (Juliet even says as much herself, at one point). Hurrrah, a great many of you might quite rightly say.
Certain things need to be said. Questions should be raised in Parliament. Kate Atkinson is a National Treasure. Why is she not scooping up all the prizes? Not only can she be funny, she can turn on a dime, delivering frankly scary words in a way that feels like you’ve accidentally sliced your thumb. Here she is, almost in an aside, talking about Hitler’s march across Europe:
“What Churchill had called the ‘monstrous tyranny’ was about to cover the whole of the continent, a delta of blood on the floodplain of Europe.”
A delta of blood. Slice. Ouch. And, of course, even as we say this is a spy novel, it’s also more than a spy novel. “What a hoot!” as another character says. There is a solid 1950 section of the book in which Juliet is working at the BBC, working on children’s radio programming, when the ghosts of the past slowly resurrect themselves. The mystery of her past coalesces, and Atkinson has long been strong on mystery so you know you are in capable hands (this is the author of the Jackson Brodie series, after all). Figures re-emerge from the gloom – is it coincidence, or are malign forces at work? As a reader, you ask yourself will the playful Atkinson win out (the one who has a character say, “We’re not approaching the end of a novel,” towards the end of the novel), or the happy avenger (Atkinson is famous for dispatching characters with nary a by your leave)? That’s one we’ll leave to you to find out.
Needless to say, we liked, without caveats. Transcription is an intelligent book you can relax into. It isn’t fodder. You have to use the old grey matter, if only to keep pace with the tautness of the plotting, but it’s always a pleasure and yet another satisfying entry into the Atkinson oeuvre.
Any Cop?: If you like Kate Atkinson, you will, of course, like this. If you like pacey, well-written war fiction, you will, of course, like this. If you’re just a fan of serious fiction, if you like a book you can lose yourself in, if you want a vividly created world, Transcription delivers.