The covert operations of Britain’s storied MI5 counter-intelligence agency have long been fodder for spy novelists. But frequently those stories feature the heroic exploits of men. In his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan eschewed such convention by focusing on a young female protagonist, Serena Frome, who is recruited by MI5 to work on a special project during the Cold War. In a similar fashion, Transcription – the gripping eleventh novel of bestselling and multiple award-winning British author Kate Atkinson – delves into the duplicitous world of wartime espionage, featuring a young female spy at the center of the intrigue.
Recruited in 1940 straight out of school at the tender age of eighteen by M15, the unsuspecting Juliet Armstrong, similar to McEwan’s Serena, is plucked quickly from her entry-level secretarial position and moved to a more exciting (but still clerical) role in an active investigation. She is assigned to work with the enigmatic Godfrey Toby who is posing as a German agent in London, collecting intelligence on British Fascist sympathizers, or the Fifth Column. “Our own home-grown evil,” is what Juliet’s boss Peregrine (Perry) Gibbons calls them. Juliet’s task is to transcribe from the adjacent room all conversations recorded by microphones embedded in the walls of Godfrey’s Dolphin Square apartment, where he entertains a small but regular group of visitors eager to do their part to assist Hitler’s advance across Europe.
While Atkinson insists in her author’s note that much of her book is made up, she admits that the inspiration for Godfrey Toby and his operation comes from historical documents made available in “one of the periodic releases by MI5 to the National Archives.” Of particular interest to the author was a series of transcriptions of meetings between a WWII agent known as “Jack King” and a group of British Fascist sympathizers. But what Atkinson realized was that, “There is no record in the public domain of who typed them – it seems to be mainly one person (a ‘girl,’ obviously) – and as I spent a period of my life as an audio typist I felt an odd affinity with this anonymous typist.”
Some of the most interesting stories derive from such affinities and the desire to spotlight the anonymous, easy-to-overlook supporting figures whose backstage labor makes possible the starring role. Juliet may be the anonymous typist – just another “girl” – but in Atkinson’s skilled hands she becomes, despite or perhaps because of her extreme youth, a complex and unlikely yet believable focal point for the novel.
Part of what makes Juliet authentic as a character is that while she’s quite successful in her duties as a transcriber and later an operative with an active role infiltrating the home and social gatherings of a prominent Fifth Columnist, she is still in some ways just a naïve teenager. Amidst all the subterfuge, Juliet, inexperienced in love and terribly curious, finds herself very attracted to her dashing and mysterious boss, Perry. Misreading signs (Perry, it becomes clear to the reader, is gay), she routinely anticipates some grand seduction, but ends up duped by her would-be lover who uses her as a means of concealing his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, some of the scenes between Juliet and Perry are comical, at times almost farcical, and add a charming levity to the story. In one instance, Juliet mistakes Perry’s invitation to an outdoor expedition involving otters and tramping through cold, wet fields in the rain as the moment he will finally declare his passion for her. The comedy of errors that ensues as Juliet wonders will he or won’t he? is worthy of Monty Python.
Ten years later, as the story moves into 1950, Juliet is working as a producer for a BBC radio children’s show called Past Lives when her own past life resurfaces in the form of a message threatening “You will pay for what you did.” Is she to be held accountable for her wartime deeds, one in particular that went well beyond transcribed recordings and false identities? “The war was a clumsily stitched wound,” Juliet says, “and it felt as if it was being opened by something. Or someone.” Still in the employ of the Service running “an occasional safe house” for MI5, an older Juliet confident in the skills she developed during the war attempts, in the second half of the novel, to turn the tables on whoever is after her.
But a marvelously unexpected twist at the end of the novel upends our understanding of Atkinson’s protagonist, reminds us that nothing is as it seems in times of war and in its aftermath, and causes Juliet to realize that while she had “cast herself as the hunter, as Diana…it turned out she was the stag, after all, and the hounds were closing in.”
Kate Atkinson’s novels are admired by her legion of fans for their intricate plot lines and lively characters. Transcription will not disappoint those familiar with the author’s oeuvre or the newcomer. While the story’s resolution reveals itself rather abruptly and requires some significant recalibration on the reader’s part in the last fifteen pages, Transcription still delivers a formidable narrative punch that demonstrates, once again, that Atkinson is a master storyteller.
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and Company
Published September 25, 2018
Kate Atkinson is the best-selling and award-winning author of 11 novels, a play, and a short story collection. Her four Jackson Brodie novels have been adapted for television by the BBC. She currently lives in Edinburgh.