Kate Atkinson has been one of my absolute favourite authors since I was in my mid-teens and, like many other readers, I was eager to pick up a copy of her newest standalone novel, Transcription. Here, as in her other books, she focuses upon a cast of unusual and realistic protagonists, using her characteristically intelligent and quirky prose. The Sunday Telegraph comments that ‘no other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson.’ I could not agree more.
The heroine of the piece, Juliet Armstrong, is ‘reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage’ during the Second World War. ‘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.’ Once the war finishes and Juliet’s contract is terminated, she tries to put the experience firmly behind her.
When she is working as a producer at the BBC some ten years later, however, she 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.’ At first, Juliet is taken, along with many other young women, to work at Wormwood Scrubs prison, but she is soon transferred to a residential flat, where she has to transcribe conversations between a man posing as German Intelligence, and the Fascist sympathisers who come to speak to him.
We first meet Juliet in 1981, when she is sixty years old. In this brief introduction, she has just been hit by a car, and confusedly reflects upon her life and achievements: ‘… 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.’ Atkinson then moves back in time to 1950, when Juliet is employed by the BBC, working in the ‘Schools’ department. From this point onward, Juliet’s dark humour is apparent: ‘The girls on Schools reception came and went with astonishing rapidity. Juliet liked to imagine they were being eaten by something monstrous – a minotaur, perhaps, in the many bowels of the building – although actually they were simply transferring to more glamorous departments across the road in Broadcasting House.’
I very much enjoyed the tangents which Juliet embarks on. When eating in a local cafe on her lunch break, for instance, she notices a ‘trollish’ man who looked ‘as if he had been put together from leftovers… A hunched shoulder, eyes like pebbles – slightly uneven, as if one had slipped a little – and pockmarked skin that looked as if it had been peppered with shot. (Perhaps it had been.) The wounds of war, Juliet thought, rather pleased with the way the words sounded in her head. It could be the title of a novel. Perhaps she should write one. But wasn’t artistic endeavour the final refuge of the uncommitted?’ Juliet is plucky and rare; her quirks and character traits are so memorable. She feels fully formed, and we learn a great deal about her as the novel goes on.
I find it such a treat to meet new Kate Atkinson characters, and warmed to Juliet almost immediately. The transitions made between different periods in her life felt fluid, and Atkinson’s prose has such command, as well as a wonderful tone. Each era is deftly set, and characters seem to spring to life against the wonderfully crafted backgrounds. There is such intrigue throughout, and the plot twists have been carefully placed; some of them I did not see coming at all. A variety of literary devices and changes of scene throughout keep everything moving along nicely, and help to sustain both interest and surprise.
Transcription is, as I expected, an immensely readable and wonderfully written novel, which feels realistic from the start. Atkinson’s writing is controlled, and humour is thrown in at just the right moments. I found Transcription transporting. The bulk of its action takes place during wartime, as I expected, but each time period really comes to life. As in all of Atkinson’s work, this is a novel which has an awful lot to say, and which explores many different themes through its central character. There are elements of the coming-of-age novel, as well as the thriller. Transcription is both plot and character-driven, and the balance between the two is perfect. Gripping and well tied together, I absolutely loved this novel of espionage, and can’t wait to read Atkinson’s next standalone.