Author: Kate Atkinson
A new Kate Atkinson is always an event. Whether she is writing in the literary fiction mode that has so far garnered her a Whitbread Book of the Year Award (for Behind The Scenes At The Museum, 1995) and two Costa Awards (for Life After Life, 2013, and A God In Ruins, 2015) or another of her hugely popular Jackson Brodie detective series, a new publication always creates a buzz of anticipation. And Transcription is no disappointment. It starts, literally, with a bang.
It is 1981 and 60-year-old Juliet Armstrong has just left a performance of Shostakovitch’s Seventh, Eighth and Ninth String Quartets at the Royal Albert Hall in London when she is hit by a car. Dazed, semi-conscious and very confused, she struggles to make sense of her current predicament while her brain triggers memories and reflections on the past.
Apparently randomly, but of course in reality not at all randomly, she considers that: “The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were their 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.”
And thus we are lured into the world of World War II and the Cold War, espionage and counter-intelligence. Atkinson’s source is the story of an agent known in official files as Jack King (real name Eric Roberts, a bank clerk) employed by British spy agency MI5 during World War II to infiltrate Fascist circles. Posing as a Gestapo agent, he met with “a number of British Fascists who reported back to him on Nazi sympathisers…. Virtually every Fifth Columnist in Britain was neutralised by the operation.”
Atkinson’s interest was piqued not just by the double life led by Roberts (so successfully, it would appear, that his bank employers were incredulous that the Secret Service should have any interest in him whatsoever) but by the process of information gathering.
For in the room adjacent to that in which “Jack” met his informants was another room full of recording equipment. And it was somebody’s job to type up the taped interviews. Which is where Juliet Armstrong comes in. It is her story and her perspective on these proceedings that interests Atkinson – the perspective of a bright, sharp, funny and thoroughly overqualified typist who is one of life’s forgotten bystanders to the main event. Or perhaps not quite as much a bystander as we initially thought.
Armstrong’s capabilities are such that she is trained up, given an alternative identity and sent undercover to investigate a group of quite hideous upper class anti-Semites. She is now, herself, in the game, run by a controller. Quite early on in the novel, it is hinted that she is in even deeper than we have suspected: “together they had committed a hideous act, the kind of thing that binds you to someone forever, whether you like it or not.”
It will surprise no one who has read any of Atkinson’s earlier work that all of this is quite brilliantly done. Juliet is engaging, witty, amusing and, as one might expect from an Oxbridge graduate, bright. Her frequently acidic comments on people and proceedings are genuinely funny. The intense claustrophobia of the war years is palpable, suspicion is rife, the period detail is spot on.
When the war is over Juliet goes to work at the BBC. By the time of her accident, she is an important member of the team responsible for Children’s Hour. There is, of course, a certain irony in this – somebody who has been privy to secrets of the war effort and been an undercover agent arguing over whether geese are needed to create an authentic medieval village.
She knows her professional life is humdrum. But her war years will not leave her alone. When she is snubbed while out walking one day by her wartime controller, memories flood back. Why has he pointedly not acknowledged her? “The war had been a tide that had receded and now here it was lapping around her ankles again.”
Transcription moves between the 1940s and 1950s in alternate sections sandwiched between the “present” of 1981. Astute readers will notice that there is a big hole in this time scheme, one that will be exploited by Atkinson for her “big reveal” at the end of the novel.
And therein, for me, lies its weakness. Atkinson cannot resist the final twist (I am tempted to say the final convolution), and in comparison with the rest of the novel the final sections felt a little hurried and somewhat confusing. A case, perhaps, of simply being too clever.
For all that, Transcription remains a fine read, particularly the 1940 sections and, well, you can make your own mind up about the final part. Whatever my subsequent reservations, I have to say that I couldn’t put it down.