“People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile.”
Truths are well hidden in Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, “Transcription,” a winding tale of espionage and counter-espionage during World War II.
Juliet Armstrong is an 18-year-old file clerk who is reluctantly recruited into the world of spying by the British Security Service, or MI5, in 1940. She’s taken to a flat in London where her job is to transcribe the events that are taking place in the room next door. Those events are meetings of Nazi Sympathizers trading information back and forth on the war effort. What the Sympathizers don’t know is that the man they think is a Gestapo officer is actually a spy for MI5. Juliet has the unenviable job of trying to understand what they are saying and not being bored to death (the novel’s funnier moments come as Juliet tries to make sense of garbled words and again as she envisions what everyone looks like). That all changes when she is given yet another job; this one to infiltrate a bevy of socialite Sympathizers. Juliet adapts surprisingly well to this dangerous task. She treats it as a game but soon realizes the consequences are not amusing at all. And the consequences of Juliet’s actions during the war follow her through the rest of her life. We see this in 1950 when a sour and jaded Juliet has a dramatic confrontation with her past and then again in 1981 as she sadly reflects on her life after being hit by a car.
Juliet has an outsized personality that is on full display during WWII. Plucky is almost too mild of a word to describe her and this gives some of the scenes the air of a black and white comic movie romp a la Hepburn and Tracy. But then Atkinson reels you back with descriptions of the war outside the London Flat and a lot of twisty spy thriller moments. Juliet has a handler, her handler has a handler and it gets to the point where you wonder who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Add in some vintage James Bond elements like disappearing ink and pock marked villains and you’ve got juicy and fast read.
The novel’s vacillation between light humor and dark reality sometimes made it hard to take Juliet seriously. In one scene she is writing “Mrs. Juliet Gibbons” over and over in a notebook like a naive and lovelorn high school student and the next she’s stealing something from a dead woman. I had a hard time reconciling these two Juliets but then I came to the conclusion that this duplicity was deliberate. The Juliet we see in 1950 bears little resemblance to the one we were introduced to in 1940 and the progression is a fine example on the true cost of war and that nothing is ever as it seems.
I always enjoy reading about World War II. It’s a never-ending treasure trove of stories. “Transcription” follows the little known act of spies spying on spies, a fascinating part of history that could probably yield even more tales. Atkinson’s inspiration came from a document released by the MI5 to the National Archives about a normal, quiet guy who just happened to be a spy trying to flush out Nazi sympathizers in Britain. But he wasn’t the one that captured Atkinson’s imagination. Instead it was the unseen person who typed all the transcripts that she read. This really does make you wonder about all the other unseen, unsung persons who contributed to the war effort on all sides. Here’s hoping Atkinson finds another one to write about soon!
As always, I appreciate your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.