Kate Atkinson’s latest book Transcription tells the story of fictional spy Juliet Armstrong. She’s an eighteen year old who is recruited to assist with an operation to track German spies in London during WW2. While a colleague reels them in from the apartment next door, she transcribes their recorded conversations.
Atkinson jumps between three timelines – 1940, the 1950, and 1980. After the war Juliet is working in London for the BBC producing what sound like some of the world’s most boring children’s radio programs. When her past working for MI5 comes back into her life it’s proof that you’re never really out of the game. As she continues to refer back to a dark incident from her WW2 days you begin to think you’ve figured out what’s going on. However, Atkinson is the master of holding her cards close to the chest.
What really impresses is her ability to get you inside her character’s heads without using a first person narrator. 1940 Juliet is so naive that, if it weren’t for Atkinson’s ability crawl inside her thoughts and let you were live inside her head, you wouldn’t believe it. By 1950 the shine has been knocked off and it’s fun to see the contrast between the two timeframes. The book is also quite funny. Juliet is an amusing character to listen to and I found myself smiling throughout the book.
This is not your typical spy novel and all the better for it. The endnotes show how Atkinson has done her homework, taking her cues from several real life events. Based on her suggestions you’ll have you next few months of reading mapped out.
I’ve been a fan of Atkinson’s for years and was excited to hear she was turning her hand to a spy theme. She didn’t disappoint. She has managed to write a book that is both funny and tragic, that shows both the thrilling and mundane parts of espionage and created a book that will demand you go back and reread it. I hope this isn’t her last foray into the world of espionage.
In what is perfect cross promotion, the BBC radio program Books at Bedtime is airing an abridged version so if you’re not tempted to read it, you can listen. The first episode is out now and the rest air nightly for the next couple weeks.
The UK edition was released on September 6th with signed copies available at all the usual suspects and a signed limited edition of 250 is available from Goldsboro Books.
The US edition is released on September 25th and what look to probably tipped in signed pages are available from specialist bookstores like Murder by the Book. Atkinson is also scheduled for what currently appears to be her only US signing at Politics and Prose. If you’d like a hand signed copy I suggest reaching out to them. I’ve dealt with them before and they have always been excellent.
From the cover –
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.