In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever. Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.
There's a good bit of humor in the book. Here are a couple of examples.
"Juliet could only imagine the havoc she would cause if she started brandishing her own gun on Oxford Street. And she couldn’t shoot every drab housewife—she’d be here all day."
"Why was it that the females of the species were always the ones left to tidy up? she wondered. I expect Jesus came out of the tomb, Juliet thought, and said to his mother, 'Can you tidy it up a bit back there?'"
The revelations that come in the last quarter of the book change how we view Juliet and her actions, but fit them. Atkinson is adept at jumbling chronology in her books, and it works well again here. I ended up giving this one 4 and 1/2 stars.
Fast forward to 1950, when Juliette is a producer of children’s programming for BBC radio. After a chance encounter with Godfrey Toby, she begins to realize her wartime activities are not fully behind her. The novel shifts between these two time periods, dropping hints and details as dots for the reader to connect. A classic spy caper ensues, where Juliette -- and the reader -- are never quite sure whether people are who they say they are, and begin to question the loyalty of key figures in the drama.
Kate Atkinson brings a unique talent to this genre. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue, as well as a great deal of humor. Juliette becomes a savvy and effective spy, and she is also an ordinary human being who loves, hopes, and fears. Atkinson also employs a very brief prologue and epilogue, set in 1981, as bookends to Juliette’s story. I found the author’s note at the end of the book very interesting, as it described how Atkinson blended discrete factual elements into a plausible story that was great fun to read.
Atkinson's obviously gone to a lot of trouble to get her details right, and supplies us with a detailed specification of the balance of truth and fiction in an endnote (supported by a copious bibliography in case we want to follow the trail ourselves). I had the feeling in the early chapters that she might be falling into the trap of giving us a bit too much authentic detail at the scene-setting stage, but that soon sorted itself out. I really enjoyed the big-institution workplace atmosphere in the BBC scenes - that all rang very true. The MI5 bits were harder to assess - I would have guessed that things would have been rather more formal and bureaucratic than what Atkinson describes, but she's the one who spent her time in the PRO digging out all the paperwork, so I'm prepared to believe her. Up to a point: Juliet's irritation at being asked by her boss to make the tea seems to be the author's, not the character's. Fair enough to be irritated if she had come into the job with extensive experience or a Cambridge maths degree or something, but as an 18-year-old starting as a junior clerical worker straight out of secretarial college, she would surely have accepted tea-making as something that went with being the most junior person in the office. But that's a silly side-issue that doesn't detract from the rest of the story.
Good fun for a winter day, with just enough moral questions uncovered to make you feel you haven't merely been relaxing with a spy-thriller...
We begin, however, in 1981, when Juliet has just been hit by a car. As paramedics work to stabilize her, we join her in her thoughts as she remembers her past.
We first go back to 1940, when Juliet was working for Godfrey Toby, an MI5 operative who masqueraded as a Nazi agent and encouraged people with pro-Fascist sympathies to report to him. Juliet sat next door in an adjacent apartment fit out with listening devices and she typed up what they said. She observed:
“The main characters in this cast of perfidy were Dolly, Betty, Victor, Walter, Trude and Edith. Each reported on a myriad others, filaments in an evangelistic web of treachery that stretched across the country.”
They are not the only ones featured in this drama with suspicious loyalties. Even the other MI5 operatives act oddly, and suspect one another of being double agents. In fact it is rarely clear who is “one of us” and who is “one of them,” as Juliet muses, offering up wry commentary on them all. She also has numerous fantasies of the MI5 men having romantic fantasies about her, which never pan out, much to her chagrin.
After a while, Julie is asked to try to infiltrate the Right Club. [In real life, this was a small group of anti-semitic fascist sympathizers in Britain’s upper class. The group was formed in May 1939, when the Scottish Unionist MP Archibald Ramsay decided that the British Conservative Party needed to rid itself of perceived Jewish control.]
Juliet’s alias (her “nom de guerre”) for this mission was to be “Iris Carter-Jenkins.” Another MI5 agent to whom she reports, Perigrine Gibbons (“Perry”) asks her to get close to the wealthy Mrs. Scaife, who is “near the top of the heap.” He explains, “Iris has been ‘designed’ to appeal to her.” [It is possible Atkinson adopted this name as a veiled reference to Richard Mellon Scaife, “Funding Father of the Right” - a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he died in 2014) whose money has established or sustained activist think tanks that have created and marketed very conservative ideas.]
Mrs. Scaife prattles on about the perils of international Jewry, and Iris acts sympathetic.
In alternate chapters, we move to 1950, when Juliet is now a producer at the BBC. Somewhat amusingly, quite a few of her colleagues there are also former operatives of MI5. She begins to think someone is following her, and she receives a threatening note. There are other odd coincidences that happen to her. She fears her past life in espionage is catching up with her. But there is another possibility:
“Or perhaps someone playing a trick on her, “some kind of game to drive her mad. Gaslighting. But it still left the question of who. And why.”
Evaluation: I wasn’t so enamored of the plot of this story, but Atkinson’s skill with prose makes all of her books a joy to read.
I Finished reading my second Kate Atkinson novel, Transcription, this morning and enjoyed the tone of the writing and the drollness of the main character. Juliet Armstrong is recruited by the British intelligence, MI5, to transcribe the conversations held in an adjoining room where Mr. Toby pretends to be working for the Gastapo, gathering info from the fifth column, or The Right Group. She eventually is asked to take on bigger roles and acts as a go between to capture an American traitor. She also helps to recover the Red Book, containing the names of the Nazi sympathizers. The novel begins in the 80's when Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car. In her hospital bed she thinks about her life. " She was just sixty years old, although it had probably been a long enough life. Yet suddenly it all seemed like an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else. What an odd thing existence was." This short chapter then gives way to the bulk of the book which charts her introduction to MI5 in 1940 and then in the 1950's as she is trying to unravel the secrets from her past and figure out why Mr. Toby doesn't acknowledge her when she runs into him. The language of the novel as well as the sense of humor of Miss Armstrong make for a pleasant reading experience. The author confesses in the afterward that this is fiction but her research of the historical elements of the time are from actual events. Highly recommend.
Midway through the book, although it’s still 1940, the monitoring seems to be over, assignment resolved and this left me puzzling over the rest of the book. Where in the world does Atkinson go from here? Believe me, there’s much more in store and I have to say I never saw the twist at the end coming. As a matter of fact when I finished the book I thought I should go back and reread it to find the clues that must’ve been there for me to discover. I guess I’ll leave that for another day. Highly recommended.
I have read all of her books and I was excited to read this new one.
I was disappointed.
The book takes place primarily in 1940.
It moves to 1950 and begins and ends in 1981.
Juliet Armstrong is a 16 year old , who gets a job transcribing the taped conversations between German , Fifth Column, Nazi sympathizers and the MI5 agent , who facilitates their meetings.
Juliet moves from transcriptions to other jobs for the service, serving with various agents , who are never what they seem to be.
The pace is slow. It is difficult to become invested in Juliet’s character. She is superficial and unsophisticated as you would expect for her age, but not very like able.
The ending ties things up and proves the point that not only is everything not what you think it is but that consequences never go away.
Based on extensive research, the history of Britain at this period of time is interesting if not very riveting. And Ms Atkinson’s prior books were always that, riveting.
This is an interesting portrayal of wartime, and post-wartime, experiences which builds into a tense mystery. I liked the prose, and Juliet’s observations, and the way references to Shakespeare, to music, and to the films Juliet sees, are incorporated. But I didn’t quite like how it all ends -- I found it oddly unsatisfying, for all the puzzle pieces fit together cleverly.
I would have appreciated more focus on the positive relationships in Juliet’s life, I think, something my favourite stories about women during the war (or women working for the BBC) have. That might have balanced against the grim atmosphere of paranoia, confusion and isolation. Then again, I suspect that the atmosphere was very intentionally cultivated. Maybe it’s just that espionage thrillers are not for me?
“I don’t think I can eat any more.”
“Oh, but you normally have such a good appetite.”
Dear God, she thought, was that what she was known for? Although it was true she was an eater -- she had eaten her way through grief, she had eaten her way through what had passed for love, she had eaten her way through the war (when she could). She sometimes wondered if there was some emptiness inside that she was trying to fill, but, really, she suspected she was just hungry a lot.
The blurbs for “Transcription” (TR) hit a lot of my hot buttons (when will I ever learn?!). Espionage, betrayal, loyalty, London, WWll. I bought it the day it was released. Huge disappointment. If you want to think of a continuum of spy fiction with Le Carre’s “Spy Who Came in from the Cold” on one end and “Austin Powers; The Spy who Shagged Me”, I would have to say TR seemed a lot closer to Powers than to Leamus. TR is a rather dull story. Juliet, our heroine, listens to conversations in an adjoining apartment via hidden microphones and transcribes them, word for word, sharing coughs, slurs, numbers of missed words, zzzzz). In the next room are German sympathizers come to share their observations from coastal sites, manufacturing facilities etc. These are not highly trained agents, rather they are more like everyday citizens with chips on their shoulders (readers might even suspect a parallel with some nationalists of today).
Juliet is a bright young woman with the nasty habit of poking at every one’s everyday clichés, e.g. “you have a good ear,” Perry complimented her. “I have two, sir.” The first one or two are cute, funny. But after a half dozen the reader can’t help but wonder what these comedic commentaries are doing in a spy novel. Ditto for Juliet’s many musings: “He sometimes took Juliet with him, introducing her as his “right-hand woman” (although he was left-handed, she noted). So, a tongue-in-cheek spy story? Doesn’t work.
As for the writing…..there are many nice sentences, many clever observations. But there was little or no tension for very long stretches. It’s a bit boring. The plotting seemed haphazard to me. Of course, there’s the usual flashback, flashforward. I didn’t see the need for the jumping about. There was one point where the jump particularly annoyed me. The reader is teased into believing there’s a cliff-hanger, only to return to the scene pages later and discover zzzzz. And then there’s the twist. For a twist to really work it must have two elements – surprise and credibility. For (a silly) example, if out of nowhere a major character is killed at the end of the story as he slips off a high wire suspended between two buildings, the reader will undoubtedly be surprised – what a twist! But if there was never any indication anywhere in the story that he was a high wire walker, or a former circus performer, or something…..some set-up, the reader can only scratch one’s head and wonder why was he on a high wire?, where did that come from? and what does it have to do with the first 300 pages of this book I’ve just read?? TR’s twist was not credible for me, not even close.
So, here’s a twist of a recommendation. Do not read “Transcription” (or if you are still tempted read more reader reviews) but maybe I CAN TEMPT YOU to read “Case Histories” instead. One last personal note – I’ve been a fan of Tana French since her first book. Now “Witch Elm” has just been released. Excellent critical reviews. Reader scores – 3.5! I think I’ll pass, at least for a while. Too many great books, too little time.
The book tells the story of Juliette, who works in an operation during the war transcribing conversations with 5th columnists in a bugging operation. In the 50s she is working at the BBC in the slightly woerth Schools programme and the story is mostly told in these two timeframes. In the 1950s story, the actions of the war have repercussions in the present.
It's worth reading the author's note at the end, as this is a work of historical fiction that has a basis in reality, but is purely invented. It is very well done and was convincingly written.
Quotes: "If everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn't it?"
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 she is enlisted to transcribe the conversations that take place in a bugged flat between Godfrey Toby, an MI5 agent, and a group of suspected fascist sympathizers. At first the work seems dull, but then it becomes terrifying as Juliet is thrust into a world of secrets and code. After the war ends, she thinks that her service is over that the event she transcribed are left in the past.
Fast forward ten years and Juliet is now a radio producer with the BBC. Even though her past seems like a lifetime ago and Juliet has resigned herself to her more mundane life and work, she is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. Haunted by these relationships and her actions, Juliet cannot escape from the repercussions of her work. Left with no choice, she is pulled back into a life of espionage.
Atkinson is such a gifted writer. I had the privilege of attending an event where she spoke at length about her research and writing process for Transcription. Her writing is rare in that she brings humour to her narrative in such a subtle way. Much of this is accomplished through Juliet trying to make sense of what she is listening to as well as through her naiveté. Juliet is Atkinson's vehicle to make the events fictional. She is "the girl". Atkinson has described her as being "a smart character, but with an incredibly active imagination".
In typical Atkinson fashion, the reader is treated to shifts in time and plot (things don't unfold sequentially). You can certainly tell that she has done her research, the story that emerges is nothing short of original and extraordinary, and I encourage you to read the author's notes. Transcription is a layered work of deception and consequences and a thrilling literary read.
Kate Atkinson breaks conventions for avoiding plots that hinge on coincidence. Somehow she makes it work. Maybe it’s as simple as having her characters acknowledge and struggle with them. This book is short enough to read in a single evening, and I wish I had approached it that way. The plot and characters are complicated enough that it’s easy to forget important details between sittings. The plot and setting feel authentic, and they’re based on real events and people from the war years and British Broadcasting. Recommended for Atkinson’s fans and fans of World War II espionage stories.
This review is based on an electronic advance reading copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
I really like how Atkinson takes the reader into Juliet's head with so little effort and a lot of dry humour. Juliet herself is likeable but flawed, which makes for quite an interesting read. The scene-setting is also great - I felt as if I really was in a slightly paranoid London entering the grimness of war.
The other characters range from intriguing to almost irritatingly mysterious. I saw Atkinson speak at a literary event not long after I started reading Transcription, and she explained that she doesn't know any more about her characters than the reader, which makes her decision to not tell the whole story about certain characters all the more intriguing.
The pace of story is fairly fast, although I thought that parts of the 1950 story dragged a little. The 1940 story was definitely more engaging for me.
All in all, Transcription is a great read. It's not my favourite of Atkinson's - Life After Life and A God In Ruins are my favourites - but it is still incredibly good writing!
I loved Juliet for roughly the final 60% of the book, but I started out not really caring what happened to her. I loved that Atkinson started her as a true innocent, but a person can be credulous and naive without being dull. We learn later some exciting things were happening, but all we see is someone transcribing overheard conversations.
I think the failure to engage in the first third is a pacing issue caused by communicating the story through those transcribed conversations. This is inherently unengaging. When I was a lawyer I worked on some interesting cases, but reviewing conversations and depositions is boring. Really boring. The case gets interesting when the evidence is distilled and a narrative drawn therefrom. In the second part of the book Atkinson gave us that gripping narrative, in the first she left the reader to engage in document review.
It is a complicated story that requires a great deal of setup, and I suppose the transcripts and actual teatime antisemitic rants do that, but they provide no action.
For the most part, this is a good book, a compelling book, but its no A God in Ruins or Life after Life. (I did enjoy the parallels between the Hitler supporters and the Trump supporters. Subtle, but clear to anyone with a even minor grasp of history.) The last 3rd reached the level of those earlier Atkinson books, but as a whole this is less engaging and powerful than those. So Atkinson is a victim of her own success, she has set such a high bar. So this is a 4 star which is better than most anything else you are likely to read.
Most of the story is set during the war, but that action is bookended by two segments set in 1950, when Juliet has left MI-5 and is working for the BBC. Figures from her past begin appearing randomly — or do they? Is she paranoid, or is someone really out to get her?
I always enjoy Atkinson's writing but this one fell a little flat for me. It just seemed rather slight with a lack of action surprising in a novel about wartime espionage. Perhaps that was the point, that the mundane infects everyone and everything in ways people outside the situation cannot understand. That, and the banality of evil, maybe, as the British fascists are a motley, rather pathetic crew. Ultimately, the ending felt rushed and my general mood when I closed the book was disgruntled rather than satisfied. Better luck next time.
Transcription is the work of a master. Atkinson takes her time setting things up and then lets loose, finishing up with an ending that left me wanting to turn back to the first page and start the novel over again.