Top positive review
Another marvellous novel from Kate Atkinson
26 September 2018
In this novel, young orphan Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 in WW II. Her role is to type the conversations “Godfrey Toby” has with German sympathisers in the flat next door at Dolphin Square. The walls had ears, and what the ears heard was recorded. After the war she worked for the BBC. The novel is structured with alternating sections from 1940 and 1950. We see Juliet transform from a clever but naive girl to a rather jaded and somewhat cynical woman of strength. She has a couple of endearing habits: hearing a word and automatically thinking of rhymes, and listening with a fresh ear to common expressions and mulling over their literal meanings. “Keep an eye out.” Disgusting. “Cat got your tongue?” How did the cat get the tongue? Such habits contribute to her droll sense of humour.
Atkinson sets up the suspense by forewarning us that something bad happened during the Dolphin Square operation, and it duly does, in one of the 1940 sections. Later, working for the Beeb, Juliet is still in the clutches of the Secret Service. She is required to provide a safe house (her flat) for an escaping Czech scientist who it is hoped will work at Los Alamos. The Czech is handed over as planned but is disappeared. By whom, exactly? Then Atkinson springs a surprise on us, and we find ourselves in the murky world of double agents. Real Philby and McClean territory, where no one is sure exactly who is working for whom. Suffice to say that Juliet needs to exfiltrate in a hurry. It’s about to go terribly wrong but she is saved by unlikely people, and lives to have a son by an Italian.
The book is filled with wonderful characters, and the ambiences of Juliet’s various workplaces are deftly described. Atkinson says that although she made a lot of stuff up, the inventions are informed by real things. She certainly did a lot of research, as the best authors do. “Transcription” works well as both a historical and a spy novel. Highly recommended.