A novel from the multiple award-winning author Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life After Life) is always cause for celebration. Transcription, based on the life of a former Secret Service worker during World War II, is no exception.
A hallmark of Atkinson’s work is her playful use of time. Transcription starts at the end of a life when, at 60, Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car in a London street. Readers are then plunged back to the 1940s, when 18-year-old Juliet finds herself at loose ends after the death of her mother. Eager to assist in the war effort, she joins MI5. Quickly plucked from the initial tasks of departmental filing and collating, she is placed in an agency-owned apartment, where she transcribes recordings of the secret comings and goings of a group of fascist sympathizers. Juliet is eventually given a nom de guerre and sent to infiltrate a group of wealthy appeasers. The work is mostly dull (transcribing) and occasionally terrifying (shimmying down drainpipes). When the war ends, she presumes her role with the agency is finished as well.
A decade later, Juliet is producing children’s radio dramas, and the personnel overlap between MI5 and the BBC is unusually high. When she is confronted by persons she thought were long gone, she realizes that not everything was tied up as neatly as she was led to believe. Though the war is over, it turns out there are still enemies that must be reckoned with.
Atkinson created a new approach to the detective novel in her delightful Jackson Brodie series, which began with Case Histories in 2004. Similarly, Transcription combines elements of the spy novel with Atkinson’s love of British history, a tremendous knack for getting the details right and a unique take on human behavior. Transcription has its share of intrigues and secrets, but it also has a level of wit and poignancy that many espionage novels lack.
Based in part on archival records and period memoirs, Transcription is a rich, sometimes comic, always insightful peek at a unique aspect of British history. Learning about women who participated in the British Secret Service and the BBC is just icing on the cake.