transcription cover

by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company, 2018

There are many pleasures to be had in this most recent novel by the always interesting Kate Atkinson. Not the least of them is the  voice of the narrator, Juliet Armstrong, whose acute observations and wry commentary make the book sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

This is a Chinese puzzle of a book; it is framed by brief scenes in a hospital in 1981, when Juliet has been hit by a car (no spoiler, this happens in the first couple of pages). It then jumps to 1950, where Juliet is a producer for the BBC Schools Service, and then to 1940, when the then eighteen-year-old Juliet is recruited by MI5, not, to her disappointment, as a bona-fide spy, but for her secretarial skills. Her job is to transcribe meetings between an agent working under cover as a Fifth Columnist and the various fascist agents he has contact with. This happened in real life, and Atkinson tells us in her afterword that the actual transcripts were the inspiration for this novel. But, as Juliet thinks to herself, “History should always have a plot …. How else could you make sense of it?”

However, one of the epigraphs of the novel is a quote by Winston Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” At one point, when she resigns herself to a less exciting job than she had hoped, Juliet thinks to herself “Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war”; so, of course, if we correct her misquotation, is truth. No one and nothing are quite what they seem: one character tells her “It’s all a front, darling,” and her internal response is “But then wasn’t everything?”

But to focus on the thematic aspects of the work is to take away from its comedy. It is almost a comedy of manners; one pictures the characters in Philip Larkin’s “old style hats and coats” acting in a black and white Ealing comedy, with a script by Noel Coward. Hardly a page goes by without an amusing aside or editorial commentary from Juliet’s inner voice. One particular favourite is when a pedantic teacher quizzes her on word derivation: “‘Hypocaustum from the Ancient Greek – hypo meaning beneath and caust burnt. Which word do you think we get from that?’  ‘I have no idea,’ she said, caustically.”

This is not a novel that tells a straight-forward story of wartime derring-do; it is something more complex, but cloaked in a light tone and featuring mishaps and misadventure. Most importantly, it is an exploration of story-telling, of information and mis-information. At a climactic point in the narrative, one character declares “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.” But of course they are.

I was provided an advance copy of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.