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Friday, 14 September 2018

Book review: Transcription, Kate Atkinson (2018)

This engrossing spy novel is set in England during the war and in the period immediately after it. But it is also a timely novel of ideas because of the way it discusses the political movements that animated that era. In the scenes set in the 1940s the fight is against Nazism and in the period immediately after the war the fight is against Communism. In the midst of the confusing and sometimes paradoxical deployment of national energies that were unleashed by numerous countries in those years stands Juliet Armstrong, who works for MI5 as a typist and then as an operative in her own right.

The real story is how Juliet changed in her relationship with the organisation over the years. There are deep secrets which are only revealed when you think that every possible drama has finally played itself out. This book keeps you turning the pages. I ripped through the book in just two lazy sessions spent on the couch.

While she is infiltrating a ring of Nazi sympathisers in London during the period leading up to WWII Juliet is intrigued by the shadowy, unsentimental figure of Godfrey Toby, who in the light of day is a colleague who has been tasked with extracting information from Englishmen and -women who hope for victory for Hitler. But Godfrey appears to have other allegiances that Juliet doesn’t at first comprehend. And 10 years after she is relinquished from her duties Godfrey mysteriously reappears; by this time Juliet is working for the BBC making children’s programs. There is a Czech scientist MI5 are extracting from Europe to send to America and he needs a place to sleep and Hartley, another spook, liaises with Juliet to set the poor man up on her couch.

When someone starts sending her threatening notes Juliet goes off in a quest to scare up the ghosts, which she assumes stem from her own past. But the ghosts she is chasing and the ones that seem to be chasing her are somewhat like the fog that envelops London one day that passes in this supremely confident and charming drama: murky and hiding real horrors. The punchline comes late and when it does several confusing matters are finally resolved.

The challenge for us today, of course, is to prevent a repeat of the disastrous mobilisation of forces that brought the world to the brink of disaster in the middle of last century. Maybe we don’t need Tom Cruise. Maybe, instead, we need more people who can see the similarities between now and then. to remind us of what might have been if things had turned out differently. In a note at the end of the story the author describes how her fiction was inspired by historical records.

I have to admit that at first I was a bit puzzled by the voice of the narrator, which reminded me of that of my aunt, Christine, who is English. The beginning is a bit slow and fusty, reminding the reader of a world before the appearance of Thai or Greek restaurants, a time when talking about sex was taboo and homosexuality was a crime. A time of oppressive class barriers and domestic servants, of gross inequality and the stiff upper lip. King and Country, that sort of thing. All very proper. In Atkinson’s hands, however, the personalities of people who might have lived at the time are fleshed out and you see them for who they actually might have been. This book is an antidote to the oblivion that often surrounds historical figures and it is a delight to read.

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