Kate Atkinson’s inspiration for her latest novel Transcription initially came from a document released by the National Archives detailing the work of a WW2 agent known as “Jack King.” “Jack” was Eric Roberts, an outwardly pedestrian bank clerk who, in secret, worked for MI5 to infiltrate Fascist circles. He had posed as a Gestapo agent during the war, renting an apartment where he would meet regularly with British Fascists and various sympathizers who confided in Roberts with nefarious plots and plans. These meetings were then transcribed into documents over a hundred pages for the records of British intelligence. The technology for recording was not as advanced as it is now; there were, one could imagine, many gaps in the conversation that needed to be filled in.
Atkinson had begun this project with the agent Roberts but found herself becoming more and more intrigued by the person transcribing these conversations. Says Atkinson in her Author’s Note: “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, especially when, on the off occasion, her own personality breaks suddenly through.”
So enters Juliet Armstrong. She is recruited out of school by MI5 to work on a special mission very much like Roberts’s: an MI5 officer posing as a Nazi agent hosts British Fascists in an apartment. Their conversations are contained, recorded, and then transcribed—by Juliet. But in Transcription, Atkinson expands Juliet’s role in the mission beyond typist: she eventually goes undercover into the Right Club, a small group of antisemitic and fascist sympathizing renegades. There, her mission is to find a book listing the Right Club’s members. But even after this mission, Juliet’s story isn’t over. Her character is increasingly implicated in the machination of war. It is not immediately clear how Juliet feels how about the war. She is 18 when she begins work, and her flippancy sometimes feels young and, at other times, cold. It forces readers to consider what it must be like to be not just young but, as Juliet often says, “in her prime” during wartime.
The novel sees Juliet in three acts: first at 18, working for MI5; then, ten years later working at the BBC; and then 59, dying. The story works backwards: Transcription begins with Juliet getting hit by a car after leaving the orchestra and then shows Juliet producing educational shows at the BBC, and as a transcriber/agent at MI5. By working in reverse chronological order, Atkinson demonstrates firstly the consequences and fates that would befall Juliet and, in telling the story, how she got there. The exciting guesswork happens through this retrospective experience of life. In relatively small steps, each of them small enough to pass somewhat unsuspiciously and unnoticed, the subterranean plot unfolds. It will turn out that every one of these steps—a headmistress’s recommendation, a dog’s death—would lead to Juliet’s death on the streets of London.
As for our protagonist, Juliet’s lively and sometimes sarcastic narration is a great pleasure to read. Juliet is constantly bemused by the grave men and women working behind the scenes in the war. “A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this,” she says of her supervisor’s overelaborate comparison of the mission to a walled garden. Juliet’s observations, from her administrative point of view, reveal both the tedium of the work—“There was going to be an awful lot of paper left at the end of the war,” says Juliet—and its chilling contents. Juliet is, after all, recording the conversations of people who say things like, “‘We could soon fill up the coal holes!’ ‘With Jews!’” These excerpted transcripts set next to descriptions of the actual act of transcribing make for some queasy reading: readers join Juliet in the high-tension waiting game that is war and will be eager to see how it all plays out. Atkinson’s story is filled with countless twists. For first-time readers of an Atkinson novel, Transcription will be a pleasure; for long-time followers, you won’t be disappointed.
Photo Courtesy Little, Brown