Few of the characters in Transcription by Kate Atkinson are who they seem to be. A novel of the Second World War, Transcription suggests that the ripples of wartime secrecy spread out through the following years so that outstanding lies and betrayals are eventually repaid. Many years later.
In 1940, Juliet Armstrong intends to join one of the women’s armed forces when she receives a letter on government notepaper and is summoned to an interview. After being informed by telegram that she has got the, still unspecified, job, Juliet boards a bus which takes her to Wormwood Scrubs prison, now converted into government offices. There she works in Registry, shuffling files around, until Perry Gibbons says, ‘I need a girl’ and Juliet finds herself working for Perry’s MI5 counter-fascism team at a flat in Dolphin Square.
Told across two timelines, 1940 and 1950 – with a brief glimpse at 1981 in the prologue and epilogue – Transcription has a huge cast of characters, most of whom I confused and, I suspect, Atkinson wishes me to confuse. Some characters are spies with cover names, some are only described and have no name while others seem innocent, too innocent to actually be innocent. If this is all confusing, it is meant to be. That is Atkinson’s point. This is a story about the importance of truth and how lies, which seem pragmatic and normal in wartime, are still lies. And that the most obvious traitors are not always the ones to be worried about.
The 1940 storyline covers the MI5 operation. At first, Juliet’s job is type up transcripts of bugged conversations between fascist supporters in the next door flat; later she takes on the persona of Iris to infiltrate a group of fascist agitators. Sometimes she fluffs her lines, sometimes she is impulsive and gets into trouble. At all times she feels isolated and unsure of the value of what she is doing. She is also a young woman and looks for signs of interest from the men surrounding her. In 1950, while working in the Schools Department of the BBC making educational radio programmes with titles such as ‘Can I Introduce You To?’ and ‘Have You Met?’, she sees familiar faces from her wartime days and the past revisits her.
Atkinson excels at the small detail which makes these workplaces convincing, creating believable relationships between Juliet and radio engineer Cyril at Dolphin Square, and with junior programme engineer Lester Pelling at the BBC. I enjoyed this book but wouldn’t describe it as a page turner. I’m not sure I liked Juliet but she held enough fascination for me as I tried to figure out what she did and didn’t believe in. I was never totally sure if I believed in her.
The Author’s Note at the end of the book is fascinating and perhaps would have served better as a Foreword. So, in summary, not my favourite Atkinson novel but not a bad one either.
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