Transcription a Good Read, but Falls Short of the Hype

By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages.

Late in Kate Atkinson’s recent novel, one of her characters remarks, “Nothing is as simple as it looks….There can be many layers to a thing. Like a spectrum.” This snippet of dialogue could easily serve as a summation of the novel.

Transcription is set mostly in 1940, with brief forays ten years in the future. Its main character is Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old who is drawn into service with MI5, Britain’s parallel to the CIA.* It’s the early days of World War II, but late enough that it looks as if Britain will soon be the last European holdout against Nazi Germany. Juliet’s job is precisely as the title suggests; she sits in a room and types transcripts of conversations she can make out–we’re talking technology from nearly 80 years ago–between an MI5 agent Godfrey Toby in an adjacent room chatting with members of the British fascist movement who think he's a Nazi sympathizer. Toby is especially adroit at charming women associated with the fascist underground: Betty Grieve, Trude Hedstrom, and Dolly Roberts, but he’s not made much headway with Mrs. Sciafe, a rich woman who is probably the money conduit. Soon, Juliet is primed to be a spy posing as Iris Carter-Jenkins and charged with ingratiating herself to Sciafe. It doesn’t take Juliet long to realize that rash actions can lead to tragic consequences.

We meet other British spooks, such as Fraulein Rosenfeld, Miles Merton, Oliver Alleyne, Rupert Hartley, and Peregrine Gibbons, the last of whom Juliet holds out hope might become her lover. (She’s desperate to lose her virginity.) Perhaps it surprises to learn that Britain had far right fascist groups when it was at war with Germany. It should not; so did the United States. The reason is simple. During the Great Depression, just a handful of nations avoided economic disaster. Among them were fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some Brits held out hope that Hitler’s troops would roll into London and “save” England. There were veritable (and imagined) Fifth Columns–homegrown enemies–in both the US and Britain. The question was how to discern harmless cranks from real threats.

Transcription is thus a spy novel, but it has a twist. We move forward to 1950, when a no-longer-innocent Juliet is working for BBC Radio. She gets a note threatening to make her pay “for what you did.” Who sent the note? When you’ve been a spy, the list can be long. Against her better judgment, Juliet tries to reconnect with some of her former MI5 colleagues, all the while launching her own investigation. All I will say is that this is a book about moles, agents, double agents, idealism, and agendas that go beyond the stated goal of ferreting out domestic fascists.

Kate Atkinson is a very good prose stylist. I am not, however, convinced that this book warrants the tons of praise heaped upon it. It’s certainly a cut above the pulp spy novels that strain the racks of used bookshops, but it does play to formula. This is glaringly the case in springing a last-minute reveal. I’ve no qualms with this per se–this is what most thrillers and detective novels do–but it feels abrupt because the entire 1950 part of the story is rather thin. Atkinson also assumes her readers are familiar with how values held in 1940 were no longer acceptable in 1950. I know this, but I’m a historian whose job it is to know. I wonder if younger readers will have any idea about the thinly veiled principals to whom she alludes.

I did enjoy Transcription, but it lacks the imaginative touch of Life After Life or A God in Ruins. I recommend you read it, though. Do NOT do the following until you’ve finished: Google Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. This was once big-deal stuff in Britain. Once you know, the gaps in Transcription become crystal clear.

Rob Weir
* Technically the CIA was created in 1947 when the World War II Office of Strategic Command was refashioned as the Central Intelligence Agency.  

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