Regular readers will know that I’m an ardent Kate Atkinson fan, always keen to put her novels at the front of any queue for literary prizes although more often than not left discombobulated by the judges’ seeming determination not to hand them over. Perhaps Transcription will buck that trend although it was conspicuous by its absence from the Man Booker longlist. It follows Juliet Armstrong who finds herself caught up in the machinations of MI5, far beyond the mundane transcriptions she’s recruited to produce in 1940.
Eighteen-year-old Juliet is a bright young woman plucked from her dull government department job and given what appears to be a similarily prosaic task by MI5: transcribing conversations between Godfrey Toby, posing as a Gestapo agent, and a collection of disgruntled fifth columnists, pleased with themselves at being singled out. Juliet proves adept at her work, her only frustration the puzzling behaviour of her boss, Perry, who seems bent on little more than hand-holding and dry pecks rather than the seduction she’d welcome. Soon, Juliet graduates to full-blown spying in an operation to infiltrate a far more influential ring of Nazi sympathisers than the everyday anti-Semites who meet with Godfrey in Dolphin Square. Flush with success, although chastened by the consequences of overreaching herself, Juliet and the rest of Godfrey’s team continue with Dolly and co until their cover is blown with disastrous results. Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC when she spots Godfrey who refuses to acknowledge her. Resurrecting her old spying skills, Juliet becomes embroiled in paranoid speculation as all sorts of faces from the past pop up. Things may not be entirely what they seem, including Juliet.
Transcription switches between 1940 and 1950, telling Juliet’s story from her own perspective. Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, whipping the carpet from underneath her readers several times during Juliet’s journey through the labyrinthine corridors of MI5. Even the apparently straightforward ending is ambiguous given the convolutions that have come before.
‘Oh, my dear Juliet,’ he laughed. ‘One is never free. It’s never finished.’
As ever, with Atkinson there’s a good deal of dry, playful wit to enjoy, particularly in Juliet’s observations of Perry:
A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir’ she said.
‘You were missed.’ (Oh, be still, my beating heart, she thought.) ‘No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong.’
Comedy aside, Transcription has some serious points to make about idealism and national interest some of which rang loud contemporary bells for me. Engrossing storytelling, engaging characters, sharp observation and sly humour – all those sky-high expectations that greet the announcement of any new Atkinson novel were more than met for me. I loved it. Bring on all the prizes.