It’s thanks to a bank clerk of the name Eric Roberts that ‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson came to fruition. While researching the National Archives, Atkinson came across details of an MI5 spy who had infiltrated fascist groups and had prevented information getting to the Nazis during World War 2. The story alone of a Westminster Bank clerk becoming a spy could definitely have had depth, however it was the transcriptions of these meetings which enthralled Atkinson. In particular the girl who would have transcribed the secret meetings and what part she had to play in stopping the Nazis.
Transcription is a gripping spy novel not just for the escapades of those living a double life but for its intricate insight into their lies and the invention of another self. There are so many identities in the novel based on lies that it becomes apparent their true identities are difficult for even themselves to determine. It is also in a way a coming of age novel. The protagonist, Juliet Armstrong is only 18 years old, a time that is difficult enough for most to know who they are as person without the complications of having to live the life of a fictitious person.
In 1940, shortly after the death of her mother, Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 to transcribe recorded meetings between a group of facist sympathisers and a spy named Godfrey Toby whom they believe to be a Gestapo agent. The meetings take place in a flat that is bugged. It is next door to this flat that Juliet and her team listen to the conversations. As the only female, Juliet is the transcriber and general housemaid, making tea and cleaning ashtrays. However her superior Peregrine Gibbons or Perry for short sees more in Juliet and soon recruits her as a spy. Although she is reminded her transcriptions remain preference to an espionage activities.
The novel covers three time frames, 1980 which bookends the story and 1950 when the war is ended and Juliet is working for another great British institution the BBC. It is in 1950 that Juliet, by chance sees Toby in the street. The first time since the war. This coincidence ignites her recollection of her old life during the war and so we are brought to 1940. Though is it a coincidence?
This chance meeting with Toby, where he acts as though he doesn’t know Juliet brings forth the idea of identity. Toby is a master of disguise. We learn that throughout his career he seamlessly moves from alias to alias. It is as though he has no authentic self. No true identity. This is what makes him the perfect spy. Perry on the other hand is struggling with his true identity. He is gay but living the life of a straight man. He even goes to the extent of asking Juliet to marry him. This flux in his identity doesn’t allow him to embrace his alias as fluidly as Toby does.
For Juliet the death of her mother inevitably leaves her struggling with who she really is. Most of her teenage years were spent looking after her sick mother. She was playing the part of a carer. She gave up on her goal of attending a private school and then at the age of 18 becomes a spy for MI5.
There is a vulnerability in Juliet that makes her a likeable character. She has endured enormous heartbreak with the death of her mother but just like the rest of Britain at the time she remained stoic and carried on. They don’t call it a stiff upper lip for nothing. There is no poor me here, despite this being a time of such uncertainty. Not just with becoming an orphan but then living through a war. In a world that is in such turmoil.
Is it any wonder she took to being a spy so well? Who in her position wouldn’t want to step into the shoes of another, if even just for the day? I think it is this vulnerability and ultimately innocence that makes Juliet an attractive character. Like every girl before her she day-dreams about the simple things. What her future life will be? Who she will fall in love with? Will it be Perry? It’s these insights into her inner monologues of how he’s going to make the first move or what it will be like to be intimate with him, that are not only heartwarming but full of wit. We have all been there and being able to relate to a heroine (even if she is a spy) is what readers want.
I shamefully admit this is my first encounter with Kate Atkinson. I have no excuse as to why I haven’t read her novels before but trust me this will not be the last. I truly enjoyed all of the characters in this novel, with all of their intricacies and nuances. Atkinson’s ability to create historical fiction that is accessible and so enjoyable to read is remarkable. I enjoyed every second of delving into the unknown territory of MI5 and the world of Juliet Armstrong.
I hope you enjoyed my first book review here at Stylewhisperings. I would love to hear your feedback or if you have read the book let me know what you think! x
Transcription is published by Doubleday for Penguin Books and is available at all good book stores and online.