The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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by Kate Atkinson

Paperback (30 Apr 2019), 368 pages.
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN-13: 9780316176668

A dramatic story of WWII espionage, betrayal, and loyalty, by the #1 bestselling author of Life After Life.

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 forever.

Ten years later, now a radio 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 the best writers of our time.

The Children's Hour

'Miss Armstrong? Miss Armstrong, can you hear me?'

She could although she didn't seem able to respond. She was badly damaged. Broken. She had been hit by a car. It might have been her own fault, she had been distracted - she had lived for so long abroad that she had probably looked the wrong way when she was crossing Wigmore Street in the midsummer twilight. Between the darkness and the daylight.

'Miss Armstrong?'

A policeman? Or a paramedic. Someone official, someone who must have looked in her bag and found something with her name on it. She had been at a concert – Shostakovich. The string quartets, all fifteen parsed out in servings of three a day at the Wigmore Hall. It was Wednesday – the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth. She supposed she would miss the rest of them now.

'Miss Armstrong?'

In the June of 1942 she had been in the Royal Albert Hall for the concert premiere of the Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad'. A man she knew had finessed a ticket for her. The Hall had been packed to the rafters and the atmosphere had been electrifying, magnificent - it had felt as though they were at one with the occupants of the siege. And with Shostakovich too. A collective swelling of the heart. So long ago. So meaningless now.

The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were enemies again. The Germans the same - the great enemy, the worst of all of them, and now they were our friends, one of the mainstays of Europe. It was all such a waste of breath. War and peace. Peace and war. It would go on forever without end.

'Miss Armstrong, I'm just going to put this neck collar on you.'

She found herself thinking about her son. Matteo. He was twenty-six years old, the result of a brief liaison with an Italian musician – she had lived in Italy for many years. Juliet's love for Matteo had been one of the overwhelming wonders of her life. She was worried for him - he was living in Milan with a girl who made him unhappy and she was fretting over this when the car hit her.

Lying on the pavement of Wigmore Street with concerned bystanders all around she knew there was no way out from this. She was just sixty years old, although it had probably been a long enough life. Yet suddenly it all seemed like an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else. What an odd thing existence was.

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kind strangers around her, a sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere up the road, to satisfy the need for pomp and circumstance. Union Jacks draped everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

'This England,' she murmured.

Excerpted from Transcription by Kate Atkinson. Copyright © 2018 by Kate Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In Transcription, Kate Atkinson again exhibits her narrative mastery with an intriguing story of trust and betrayal set during and after World War II.

Print Article

Over her two-decade-plus career, Kate Atkinson has reinvented herself as a writer several times by working in, and often bending, a variety of genres, from the family drama of her Whitbread Award–winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, through her series of inventive crime novels starring police detective Jackson Brodie, and her literary master works about the Todd family during World War II. Now she's done it again with Transcription, an unconventional historical spy novel in which characters—not to mention readers—are never quite sure whom they can trust.

At the center of Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who we meet for the first time in 1981, on the eve of the wedding of Charles and Diana. She's just been hit by a car on her way out of a concert hall—an experience that casts her mind back to other music, places, and people she's known. "Suddenly it all seemed like an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else. What an odd thing existence was," she thinks to herself. And then readers—much like Armstrong's memories—are propelled back in time to a narrative that alternates between postwar London in 1950 and London in 1940, as Britain watches Germany's march across Europe, fearing that they will be conquered next.

In 1940, Juliet is an eighteen-year-old clerk, like many young women during the war; she is plucked from obscurity, however, and assigned to new classified duties, transcribing recorded conversations between a British intelligence officer, Godfrey Toby (undercover as a Gestapo operative), and British Nazi sympathizers ("known as "fifth columnists") making plans to facilitate a German conquest of England. Toby's work is intended to gather intelligence, and also to disrupt any potential plans for a German invasion. Juliet, who finds the transcribing much duller than she had originally imagined or hoped, eventually invents some drama for herself, angling for a romance with her closest colleague, who seems bizarrely disinterested.

Ten years later, the war is over (though the Cold War is well underway), the true atrocities of the Nazi regime have come to light, and Juliet is working at the BBC, producing children's radio programs. She happens to cross paths with Mr. Toby, who pretends not to know her—but soon she begins to encounter coincidences that seem to point back to her former life as a spy, hinting that the secrets she kept then may not have been fully locked in the past.

In previous novels, particularly in the pair of books about the Todd family—Life After Life and A God in Ruins—Atkinson quite deliberately played with narrative conventions in a way that also called into question the nature of reality, the passage of time, and the repercussions of human actions. Transcription might be, on the surface of things, a more conventional novel than those Atkinson has written recently, but it still exhibits some knowing self-awareness (near the end of the novel, Juliet is advised by another character, "We're not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong"). Like the Todd books, elements of Transcription demonstrate—not only through Juliet's own story but also through those of other characters, that consequences matter and that the past is never truly the past, as much as we might wish that to be the case. "Oh, my dear Juliet," the incredulous and disillusioned protagonist is told near the novel's end, "One is never free. It's never finished."

In her Jackson Brodie novels, Atkinson played with the conventions of detective fiction—here she does so with the spy thriller. Spy novels are all about false and shifting identities, but Atkinson takes it one step further. Juliet herself becomes unmoored by the work she's done and the various personas she and the people around her have adopted: "Juliet Armstrong ... some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the 'real' Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn't everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?" Loyalties, betrayals, being duped into playing for the other side—these are all the standard stuff of spy fiction. But in Atkinson's ingenious novel, she uses these conventions as a springboard to consider larger ideas: individual motivations toward patriotism, the ambiguity of reality, and the slippery nature of time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

Publishers Weekly
Suspenseful...The book ends on an uncertain note for Juliet, a poignant denouement for this transportive, wholly realized historical novel.

Starred Review. Atkinson never fails to take us beyond an individual's circumstances to the achingly human, often-contradictory impulses within...[T]his is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.

Library Journal
Starred Review. With a fascinating cast of characters, careful plotting, and lyrical language in turns comical and tragic, Atkinson's complex story carefully unveils the outer demands and inner conflicts that war inflicts on people. A delight for fans of A.S. Byatt and Ian McEwan.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny ... Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by M Kassapa
Opposites Attract
For me, the funny thing about Transcription is that I don't particularly like Kate Atkinson's style and yet the story is so fun and engaging with wonderful turns and twists that I simply could not put it down and enjoyed the book thoroughly to the very last word.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
Another Atkinson masterpiece.
Transcription is the fourth stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. In 1940, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong finds herself recruited into the Secret Service. Mostly it’s fairly boring, typing up reports and transcribing recordings of agents meeting with British Nazi-sympathisers. But then she’s given another identity and the work gets more interesting, for a while. After one exciting episode, arrests are made.

But there were some incidents about which Juliet doesn’t like to think too much, and when the war ends, she’s not sorry to leave it all behind. Five years later, Juliet is working for the BBC producing children’s programs when a face from the past appears: the man who posed as the Gestapo contact passes her in the street. What is disconcerting is that he pretends not to know her.

On the heels of this, a somewhat threatening note is delivered, more of her former colleagues from MI5 flit in and out, and she feels sure she is being followed. Frustrated for information from official channels, Juliet decides to become the hunter rather than the prey.

Once again, Atkinson gives the reader a plot that is perfectly plausible, but filled with twists and red herrings. Her depiction of London during the war and in the immediate aftermath has an authentic feel, with the social attitudes portrayed appropriate for the era. Her protagonist is easily believable: Juliet is intelligent but still naïve, although perhaps not quite as innocent as she first seems.

Her descriptive prose is excellent, as always, and Atkinson no doubt delighted in dropping this piece of dialogue in the final pages: “Fisher clapped his hands, as if to signal the end of the entertainment and said, ‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.’” Another Atkinson masterpiece.

Print Article

World War II Bombings at the BBC

Exterior of BBC's Broadcasting House after bombing on 15 October, 1940"Roughly speaking, for everything that could be considered an historical fact in this book, I made something up," writes Atkinson in an author's note at the end of Transcription. One thing she did not need to augment with fiction were the amazing stories of the British Broadcasting Company during World War II, many of which are related as still-vivid anecdotes during Juliet's postwar employment there.

The BBC offices and studios were considered to be likely targets for German bombing campaigns, so several departments—from Drama to Music and Variety—were transferred to various locations outside the city. Meanwhile, the producers and reporters who remained at BBC headquarters in London came to view the Criterion Theatre, the station's concert hall, as a sort of dormitory, where employees rode out much of the war by eating and sleeping where they also worked. Broadcasting House—located less than a mile from the Criterion--was indeed hit by a German bomb within the first few weeks of the Blitz campaign, while news reader Bruce Belfrage was on the air; he continued reading the news with the sound of explosions and sirens echoing behind him. Seven people died in that bombing and the fire that ensued. The BBC's studios at Broadcasting House were bombed again just two months later, as was the Maida Vale studio, farther west in London.

In her author's note, Atkinson relays an anecdote from novelist and BBC reporter George Beardmore's book Civilians at War, in which he recalls sitting outside the engineering room with a loaded shotgun, prepared to defend the studio against invasion. But the BBC also had contingency plans in place in case London became uninhabitable, including setting up operations in a disused funicular railroad tunnel in Bristol, whose structural integrity was tested by having the BBC Symphony Orchestra play in the space at full volume. In addition to Beardmore's journals, Atkinson recommends Penelope Fitzgerald's novel Human Voices, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the human dramas unfolding at the BBC during this incredibly strenuous time.

BBC's Broadcasting House after October 1940 bombing, courtesy of BBC Blogs

By Norah Piehl

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