Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life and A God in Ruins, is back with another blockbuster, Transcription. Protagonist Juliet Armstrong is only eighteen, and recently orphaned, when she is recruited by an MI5, the United Kingdom’s counter-intelligence and security agency. Her task is to transcribe the recordings taken from a bugged flat, though she is quickly promoted to spy. The inhabitants of the flat are Nazi sympathizers who believe they are giving information to a Gestapo agent, Godfrey Toby who is actually an English spy.
Like her other books, Transcription has a complicated structure – bouncing back and forth in time, bookended by a scene in 1981 after Juliet has been hit by a car, then flashing backwards to the 1940’s when she served as a spy, and then jumping to the post-war 1950’s where she is a producer of history shows for children on the BBC. Godfrey Toby appears in each segment, a shadowy figure that trails off into the crowd leaving Juliet to wonder if she’s actually conjured him up.
“He had been coming out of a bank. That used to be his cover—bank clerk. It was clever really, no one wanted to engage a bank clerk in conversation about his job. Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harboring a secret . . . but as time had gone by she’d realized that being ordinary was his secret. It was the best disguise of all really, wasn’t it?”
During her time as a spy, Juliet takes on so many aliases that she has difficulty remembering the details of each life as she’s relayed them. Her transformation from innocent school girl to liar and thief seems a necessary part of her job, all for a higher good, but is it, really? “People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile,” Julia thinks.
It is clear early on, that Juliet is an unreliable narrator, emotionally detached and lacking a moral center; perhaps the required attributes for a spy. In the scenes from the 1950s her past is catching up with her. She receives threatening notes, “You will pay for what you did.” She is paranoid – or is she – was that? Were they following her?
Her lack of compassion, left this reader with a sense of uneasiness, an almost-wish that she would in the end get what she deserved. After the threat, she revisits former informants and spies, one of whom, Trude Hedstrom, is in the hospital. Juliet claims to be her goddaughter in order to visit and after seeing that she clearly is in no shape to have threatened her, she wishes to leave but the ward matron encourages her to stay so that Trude doesn’t die alone. When Trude’s struggle escalates to a death rattle, Juliet decides to leave.
“It would have taken the hardest heart—harder even then Juliet’s—not to feel a little sorry for Trude, but then Juliet thought of Fraulein Rosenfeld, who had lost all her prettier sisters to the camps. She stood and said, ‘Well this is goodbye, Trude,’ and left her to die on her own.”
Hard-hearted or a loyalist at heart?
In her author’s note, Kate Atkinson admits that “for everything that could be considered a historical fact in this book, I made something up – and I’d like to think that a lot of the time readers won’t be able to tell the difference.” She calls the novel an “imaginative reconstruction” – though the book was inspired by the true life story of spy “Jack King” whose real identity, after years of speculation, was revealed to be Eric Roberts, a “seemingly ordinary bank clerk.”
Transcription will require your attention, a careful reading and perhaps re-reading, but you will be rewarded. The writing, as in all of Atkinson’s novels, is superb. Juliet’s internal dialogue has a satirical bite. Kate Atkinson has delivered a novel laced with intrigue and history, and characters that you won’t readily discard after you turn the last page.