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The bulk of Kate Atkinson's new and astonishing novel, TRANSCRIPTION, is set in 1940 and, to a lesser extent, in 1950. But these narratives are bracketed by two brief chapters in which Juliet Armstrong, whose story this is, lies grievously injured in a London street, knocked over by a car, probably accidentally. As she awaits attention, she murmurs an enigmatic phrase, "This England," which the attentive reader might keep in mind while following the story of Juliet's past that brought her to this point.
In 1940, when she was eighteen, Juliet, who had been educated as a scholarship student at a prestigious secondary school and who had thought to continue to university, instead interviews for a job with MI5 where she is enlisted to transcribe the bugged meetings of a group of British Fascists who are happily anticipating the advent of the Führer. They believe they are aiding the cause by tendering tidbits of information that might come in useful when the invasion comes to their contact with the Chancellery in Berlin who is, of course, a British agent. Juliet is installed in the flat next door where she listens to recordings of whatever takes place. Given the limitations even of state of the art technology of the day, her typed transcriptions are full of guesses and reconstructions, but then, this bunch, as repellent as they may be, really don't know very much of any significance. This entire operation is firmly rooted in historical fact as an MI5 document released to the National Archives has recently revealed. Established at a moment when a German invasion and probable victory was widely expected, it and similar undertakings managed to neutralize virtually every potential fifth columnist in the country.
So what Juliet does is simultaneously vital and insignificant. But she is soon to take on a more active role as an undercover agent trying to infiltrate the Right Club, which includes prominent members of the Establishment, who are supposed to be listed (foolishly, if true) in something called, curiously, The Red Book. It is Juliet's task as Iris Carter-Jenkins of Hampstead to keep an eye on this bunch and get hold of the Book, if she can. It is a task that probably should not have been entrusted to an amateur and in the end, it goes badly wrong.
Juliet's career as an eighteen-year-old spy for MI5 is interspersed with a description of her post-war life in 1950 as she works for Schools programmes at the BBC. Schools produces what sound like (and probably were) deadly little dramas titled "Past Lives" that strive to make history come alive for their captive audience of primary schoolers. Those set in the Middle Ages feature serfs and lute players and the occasional pig, for example. But as Juliet copes with the usual stresses of broadcasting, her past war-time life intrudes. She receives a threatening note: "You will pay for what you did." But what in particular did she do? The reader is at this point not sure at all. Nor is Juliet, who evidently has more on her conscience than the reader knows about.
As is appropriate for a novel that has one foot in genre fiction, that reader will have to wait till the very end of the book for a central fact to be revealed. When it is, we are simultaneously taken aback and forced to reconsider everything we thought we knew about the characters in TRANSCRIPTION, including Juliet herself.
The main character in Atkinson's stunning LIFE AFTER LIFE experiences multiple resurrections, each of which provides a different outcome, or at least a suggestion of one. Curiously, Juliet's life effectively ends in 1950, though we know she goes on to live more than another thirty years. We are told next to nothing about those years, save that she had a relationship with a musician and bore a son whom she deeply loves. These two are mentioned only in passing. It is as though whatever happened to Juliet, whatever she may have done, put a full stop on her growth and closed off every road forward save one. Once she asks whether "this England" was worth fighting for. "Yes," she thinks. "What other answer was there? Really?" At the very end, however, she thinks that "nothing mattered," and "that was a freedom, not a burden."
Certainly, TRANSCRIPTION is only a courtesy thriller, so to speak. That is, it expands the admittedly elastic borders of the genre about as far as they can stretch. But it is hard to imagine any reader who happily devoured her Jackson Brodie series not pouncing on TRANSCRIPTION. It's true, it has ideas, wit, irony, impeccable stylistic control, everything "literary fiction" aspires to and too often lacks. But it also has narrative, plot, character, suspense, and spies. And it even has a dog!
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2018
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