Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

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