You never know where a novel by Kate Atkinson is going to take you. Transcription begins when Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car. Hanging between life and death, Juliet reviews her past over two time zones. The first is in 1940 Juliet is an eighteen-year-old-typist at MI5 when she is required by Perrigrine Gibbons for some secret war work.
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.
Perry is suavely handsome, and Juliet has flights of fancy about him, but she is soon set to work in a Finchley flat, where secret recordings are made of the conversations next door. Through the wall, a secret service operative, Godfrey Toby, has clandestine meetings with Nazi sympathisers who pass on interesting tit-bits of information. Juliet has the job of typing up the transcripts, hence the title.
The novel also switches forwards ten years to 1950. Juliet is a producer for the BBC Schools programme when a figure from the past reappears. She recognises Godfrey Toby in the street but he refuses to acknowledge her. Other oddities occur – threatening notes and the feeling of being followed by a man with a pocked face, a squint and a limp – and slowly the two eras converge to provide a picture what Juliet got up to during the war.
Kate Atkinson writes with her usual dry wit. Juliet’s just an ordinary girl so her MI5 work is a bit of a lark, a bit Girls’ Own. The people she works with are surprisingly unlike spies as we might imagine them to be; the enemy she encounters ordinary women: middle-aged Dolly with her little dog; Trude from Scandinavia who isn’t very bright, but knows how to get rid of a body. Juliet’s work for the Schools programme is similarly ridiculous – she rewrites the scripts to make them more interesting, just as well writer Morna Treadwell never listens to the broadcasts.
Even though we are inside her head for the entire book, Juliet is a nebulous character. She drinks scotch and smokes Craven A’s as she works away in her little flat, but she’s never settled down or seems likely to. It would be hard to get close to her it seems. Has MI5 has ever really let her go?
Transcription is a breeze to read, like everything Atkinson does, with its sharp prose and vividly recreated situations from the past. She’s good at wartime London and has researched BBC circa 1950 to a tee. I was a little ambivalent about the book at first, perhaps because Juliet is such a difficult character to get to know. But as the book steams towards its end, everything makes sense, and the journey is so interesting. Four out of five from me.