Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Readers of historical fiction will enjoy this book about MI5 agents in World War II (and post-WWII) London.  I also know there are some Atkinson fans who didn’t love Life After Life and prefer something a little more straightforward, so this book should please them as well.  It’s thoughtful, interesting historical fiction written with Atkinson’s attention to detail and character.

It was a fast read for me, one that never slowed or got dull, although it does at times get a bit confusing. I think that’s probably deliberate because, as an agent, the main character Juliet Armstrong never quite knows who’s doing what or for which side.

Armstrong is introduced at the very beginning of the novel as a 60-year old in 1981. Then the book jumps back to 1940, where young Juliet is recruited first to transcribe secret recordings of Third Reich supporters, and then as a secret agent infiltrating “the fifth column”.  Then we go to 1950, where Juliet is struggling to make a post-war life for herself with a somewhat mundane job working for the BBC.  She’s trying to leave spy work behind her when she receives a threatening note (“you’ll pay for what you did”) and then she sees a former colleague on the street who pretends not to know her.

I found Juliet an interesting character.  She’s a good person but not always a terribly likable one (readers who need to love their main character may be put off).  She’s fairly distant and doesn’t have much trouble being duplicitous.  She’s brave, although you get the sense she doesn’t really know what she’s gotten herself into – it takes a while for her to take the work they do seriously.  She’s innocent in some ways but also seems pretty jaded. I loved her wry sense of humor (and Atkinson’s way of writing it).

I found the story fascinating and enjoyed the suspense Atkinson builds, where we never quite know the full story since the work of a spy is not to know what other spies are doing or who they are working for.

Atkinson gives an explanation at the end of the book of what was fact and what was invented, and she describes the historical discoveries that inspired the book.  This kind of information always adds to my appreciation of a historical novel.

The book is particularly relevant today, in its themes relating to nationalism, patriotism, and fascism.

Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones, Perry said.”)

I liked everything about the book except I had mixed feelings about the ending (which of course I can’t write about).

If you enjoyed this book and want to read another character-driven novel about spy work, I recommend Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht (about Cold War espionage in Argentina).

Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Little, Brown and Co. for the advanced review copy of this book, which publishes September 26, 2018.

  6 comments for “Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

  1. September 26, 2018 at 6:39 am

    I loved Juliet’s detachment – there are things about her reactions that made me wonder whether she was quite…all right, whether there were aspects of her character that were perhaps quite disturbing. Atkinson’s so careful about never overplaying that, though, so that we only gradually come to realise that the colder people are, the better they are at doing the kind of work Juliet is engaged in. Good stuff, I think, even if not her absolute best.

    • October 20, 2018 at 8:44 am

      I agree – I’ve read a few books lately that made me think about the type of people who are best at spy work and how we need those people to do what they do but it probably takes a terrible toll on them. And you’d have to be well suited to that kind of work to begin with. I can’t lie at all so I’d be terrible at it – though I’d probably good at the more mundane work.

  2. October 1, 2018 at 7:49 am

    Well… hm… I need to admit, I’ve never read any Atkinson. Maybe I should?

  3. October 1, 2018 at 7:50 am

    Oh, and did you read “The Alice Network”?

    • October 20, 2018 at 8:36 am

      I did read Alice Network – great history, but I didn’t care for it overall because the characters seemed one dimensional. Atkinson is much more nuanced.

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