28 December 2018

Review - Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Design by Richard Ogle
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 6 September 2018
HB, 337pp

I bought my copy of this book.

I should have read Transcription when it came out in September but with a lot of distractions, it slipped and I picked it up to read over Christmas. Once I did, I couldn't put it down.

Atkinson's latest is, simply, masterly. It's an immersive, compelling account of one woman's war (a phrase borrowed from the title of one of her source books, sorry) and of the price she pays for it later.

Following the death of her seamstress mother, Juliet Armstrong - a bright, scholarship girl with Oxbridge ambitions - attends secretarial college instead, then joins MI5 as a typist at the beginning of the Second World War. She assigned to monitor Nazi sympathisers in 'Operation Godfrey'. This basically means transcribing covertly recorded conversations between an MI5 agent, Godfrey Toby, and the sympathisers ('the neighbours'). They think he's a German agent, allowing him to prevent them passing on useful information to anyone who might make use of it.

The story moves backwards and forwards between 1940 - those fatal weeks around the fall of France - and 1950, by which time Juliet is ensconced at the BBC as a producer of schools programmes. Atkinson plays a long game here, gradually introducing elements looking back and hinting at how the events of 1940 played out, and how they may still haunt Juliet. More is implied than said, but it soon becomes clear that she wasn't just transcribing but at one stage actively infiltrating the 'Right Club'. (This contains just the kind of ghastly people you'd expect - traitors and cryptofascists happy to  collaborate with tyranny just to protect their privileged position in the world. Mostly, rather stupid people, of a type that, unfortunately, doesn't die out). That leads her into danger, at first of a rather 'Girls' own' type but soon becoming more serious - Atkinson drops more hints, about deaths, even as Juliet's role in 1950 becomes more complex too.

At the heart of the book are two mysteries. What really is going on at the BBC? With old MI5 contacts apparently popping up and threatening messages being sent, the past seems to be reaching out for Juliet, the corridors of Broadcasting House no longer safe, a series of mistakes threatening her position at the BBC. And what really was going on in Dolphin Square in 1940? Who, exactly, was on what side? Might a network of collaborators have been a useful asset for an MI5 agent wanting to hedge their bets?

As the story becomes more complicated, truth being reflected around that labyrinth of mirrors to which spy fiction is prone, Atkinson keeps the reader focussed less on the 'what' than on the 'why' and on the consequences. There are consequences; one character spells this out explicitly towards the end, but really, we've been aware of that all along. Just look at Juliet. She is a composed, resourceful and self-aware young woman - whether in 1940 or 1950 - yet continually speculates on the future, the past, her place in MI5 or the BBC, on the effect of what she did on others (especially this). Juliet is, really, our window into some very strange worlds at a time when so much hung in the balance. The story has often been told about how in May 1940, the UK wavered on the brink of capitulation, with an influential factor in favour of peace. This is not that story - the story of Cabinet debates and Parliamentary oratory - but it also is that story - the story of what ordinary (and extraordinary) people were doing and saying that lets us imagine how they might have responded had things been different.

Readers of Atkinson's last two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins will be familiar with some of these themes (responsibility; consequences; the price that might be paid) which she also examined there, through the lens of a kind of of multiple worlds universe and she - teasingly - alludes to this I think. In the opening scenes, set in 1981, a Royal Wedding is coming, reminding me of the framing of A God in Ruins, and there's a certain amount of overlap too in the 1940s setting and in what we might imagine Juliet's later life to have been like. But this isn't a book in that world. The alternate paths taken here are choices made and fixed and then reflected on, not points that might yet go a different way in another life. That makes the stakes, I suppose, higher, and the things Juliet has done graver.

The book is tremendous fun, shrewdly observed (a great deal of this revolving around the internal politics of a bureaucracy such as the BBC or MI5 - Juliet wonders if these two are not really fundamentally the same organisation - but also taking in things such as class and the state of British food in the 1950s) and very human in the way it deals not only the murky shenanigans of espionage but with the frail people caught up in it. Monstrous as they are, there is still some sympathy for Mrs Scaife and her entourage of would-be collaborators and Quislings. While some readers may think they never really got what was coming too them, I'm not sure; they see their hopes and plans dashed and many suffer personal loss - and as we seen, the forces of the State pretty much play fast and loose with law and decency to achieve their ends.

Best of all though, this is a thunderingly good story, the kind of thing you won't want to be parted from till it's finished.

Those are the very best books, and this is among the best of them.

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read your review - as this is next on my pile! :) All the best for 2019.