I went to Waterstones recently with a friend and she recommended I buy a copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The description drew me straight in and as I’d never read anything by her before I decided to give it a go. Soon afterwards, I found myself back in Waterstones with a £10 loyalty voucher to spend (if you don’t have a loyalty card, get one!) and picked up Transcription too. Being a bit shorter than Life After Life, I decided to start with this one. And I loved it.
Juliet had been working in the Registry for a tedious two months when yesterday Peregrine Gibbons had approached her in the canteen and said, ‘I need a girl.’
And, lo and behold, today she was here. His girl.
‘I’m setting up a special operation,’ he told her. ‘A kind of deception game. You will be an important part of it.’ Was she to be an agent then? (A spy!) No, it seemed she was to remain shackled to a typewriter. ‘We cannot choose our weapons in a time of war, Miss Armstrong,’ he said. I don’t see why not, Juliet thought. What would she choose, she wondered? A sharp sabre? A bow of flaming gold? Perhaps arrows of desire.
Set predominantly in 1940, Transcription tells the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited by MI5 aged eighteen. Aside from a brief foray into life as a spy, Juliet spends her days transcribing secret recordings of meetings between Nazi sympathisers in a flat in Dolphin Square, Pimlico. As the war goes on, she realises that the Service has created a greater web of espionage and deception than she could ever have imagined, and it becomes harder to know who to trust. She doesn’t feel as though she knows anyone, not really, and yet they all seem to know a great deal about her.
After the war, Juliet starts working for the BBC. Kate Atkinson’s descriptions of wartime and post-war London have a very authentic feel, and the style of language she uses (as well as astute observations regarding fashion, social etiquette and the treatment of and attitude towards women) really helped transport me back in time. Although – as she explains in her author’s note – she did a great deal of research for the novel, she has intertwined fact and fiction throughout. The result is very convincing, providing an entertaining insight into daily life in the forties and fifties as well as life in the Secret Service. Juliet is an utterly engaging and deceptively complex character and I loved reading her thoughts on everything around her, from the people she meets to the things they say and the strange situations in which she constantly finds herself. I also really appreciated the attention to detail with regard to the novel’s setting, much of which I am familiar with from my time living and working in London – and the various street and pub names, Tube stops and hotels, for example, allowed me to conjure up a picture of Juliet’s life in London which really helped draw me into the story.
In our turbulent political times, and in light of the struggle many of us are currently facing to be proud of our country and its leaders, I found it fascinating and very thought-provoking to go back to a (not-all-that-long-ago) Britain in which so many people pulled together for the war effort, for the sake of each other and for the love of their country. Transcription is a beautifully written and extremely captivating novel, which packs a lot into its 380 pages. I think Kate Atkinson is a brilliant writer, and I have a feeling that I’m going to love her other books too.