This is the new novel by Kate Atkinson. I signed up for it last autumn, six months before it was published, because I very much liked A God in Ruins, her Costa Book Award winner in 2015 – her third time to win the award.
Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951; she studied English Literature at Dundee University, winning her MA in 1974. She went on to study for a doctorate in American Literature, but she failed at the oral examination stage. She has written five Jackson Brodie novels, six other novels (three of which won the Costa Award or its predecessor, the Whitbread Award), two plays and a collection of short stories. She lives in Edinburgh currently.
The central character in Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who, at age eighteen, becomes the typist in 1940 for the Security Service, MI5. Her role is to transcribe the conversations a British agent has with German sympathisers: the Fifth Column. Her boss thinks well enough of her that he gives her the assignment of getting close to Mrs Scaife, a German-sympathising British socialite, the wife of an admiral who has been interred for his pro-Nazi views. Juliet succeeds rather well in this deception, arranging a meeting between Mr Vanderkamp, an American official opposed to war with Germany and who has access to US secrets, with Mrs Scaif, who intends to pass the information on to the Third Reich. The pair are arrested as the information is passed between Vanderkamp and Scaife. Juliet is also involved in the death of a pro-German woman who accidentally discovers that her conversations with the man she thought was a Gestapo are actually being recorded by the British. Toward the end of the war, Juliet becomes sympathetic to the Russian cause, and an attempt is made to recruit her as a double agent for the British.
As usual, Ms Atkinson does a splendid job researching her subject matter, from the identities of the real-life players, to the settings, to the actual events and messages. One is transported back to a blacked-out, war time London, where there was much going on in secret, well-lit places. The principal characters: Juliet, her boss, Perry Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, the fake Gestapo, and Mrs Scaife as well as some of the minor characters are all distinctly drawn and entirely credible. Ms Atkinson’s writing is confident and authoritative, leading the reader deftly into unexpected turns of events. This is not a heavy, sinister novel; it has moments of humor and irony.
For me, there are two serious problems with this novel. First, Juliet’s assignment as transcriber of the conversations is relatively unimportant in the war effort: nothing of significance is learned that will remotely affect the war’s outcome; and second, a large portion of the book is devoted to Juliet’s transcription efforts. The novel would have been more interesting if it had more to do with Juliet’s spy persona, Iris Carter-Jenkins, and with more of the identity intrigue and double-dealing going on at high levels in MI5. There were also some details that didn’t seem right to me. For example, does it make sense for the man who has the power to force Juliet into a double agent’s role to bother sending her anonymous ‘You will pay for what you did’ messages?
This long-anticipated novel is not up to Kate Atkinson’s usual standards.