I had mixed feelings about Life After Life and A God in Ruins, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy her new book. Possibly it’s because it’s the most linear Kate Atkinson novel I’ve read so far, but I absolutely loved Transcription. The novel is about Juliet Armstrong, a producer of historical dramas on BBC Radio who is afraid her past as a transcriptionist and undercover agent at MI5 during WWII is catching up to her. The novel goes back and forth between the excitement of Juliet’s life during the war, and her more mundane reality of the present.
This book was so much fun, and the perfect story to lose oneself in. Atkinson recreates the world of WWII espionage so vividly that we are drawn into the adventure and glamour of that life as viscerally as Juliet herself is. War itself is horrific, but there’s a comfort in the effectiveness of the work Juliet and her MI5 colleagues are doing. For example, an MI5 agent creates a fake award that he bestows on his contact purportedly from powerful Nazi officers for her service to the cause, and it feels very satisfying to see such a hateful person be exposed as being so gullible. Such victories may be minor, even petty, but like Juliet, we can feel like they’re all contributing to an important larger cause, and we can understand why Juliet so badly wants to play a part.
Unlike other recent war-time books I’ve read that, honestly, felt a bit depressing at times, Transcription is entertaining and even funny at some points. For example, the code phrase MI5 uses for agents to recognize each other — “May I tempt you?” — often leads to hilarious misunderstandings in the novel, and Juliet often wonders why they couldn’t have picked a more distinct phrase.
The humour doesn’t mean that Atkinson shies away from the harsh realities of war. In fact, when things go wrong later on, and Juliet has to confront the violence — sometimes to innocents — caused by her actions, the horrific reality of war feels even more potent. Like Juliet, it’s all too easy for the reader to get caught up in the glamour, and lose sight of the true extent of the risks involved.
The story of post-war, radio producer Juliet is somewhat less compelling, mostly because it starts off with the more mundane reality of a dissatisfying job. The pace picks up somewhat when Juliet realizes someone from her past may be targeting her (for reasons we won’t learn until late in the book), but even then, it feels a pale shadow to the excitement of what was happening during the war itself. In a way, I think this may be a deliberate move on Atkinson’s part, and a testament to her talent at prose, that she’s able to use her tone to capture the youthful excitement of Juliet at MI5 and the more adult, somewhat disappointed Juliet who can’t quite find her footing after the war. Even as Juliet fears her pursuer, the challenge somehow gives her a sense of purpose, and we realize how much the work at MI5 has influenced her approach to life.
Transcription is a fun novel, perfect for fans of historical fiction and espionage. It doesn’t quite have the clever plot tricks of Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and I think that made me enjoy it so much more.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.