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Spy novel Transcription explores the ambiguities of war

Deliciously suspenseful: Kate Atkinson.

English writer Kate Atkinson's wartime espionage story is filled with tension and wry humour.

Kate Atkinson, known for her sophisticated and sarcastically funny prose, is in sparkling form in her new novel, Transcription, which delves into wartime espionage. The first part of the storyline is a ripper, revolving around Juliet Armstrong, enlisted by MI5 in 1940, at the age of 18, to join a team targeting British Nazi sympathisers.

Juliet is an interesting young lady: sexually innocent but keen to get going, working class, well educated, tough and sardonic. She’s pretty good at lying, too. All the better for her new career as a spy.

Her first assignment is based in a flat in Dolphin Square, in central London, adjacent to a neighbouring flat that has been wired to record a suburban “cast of perfidy” who regularly pop in to engage in treasonous conversations with an undercover MI5 agent.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Juliet’s job transcribing this chatter and gossip is dreary stuff, enlivened only by her attraction to her effete boss, Perry Gibbons. But then her assignment is broadened – she’s given a gun and nom de guerre and instructed to infiltrate an upper-crust group of fifth columnists called the Right Club – in particular, a matron called Mrs Scaife.

When Mrs Scaife hoves into view – she’s described as having a “substantial hull” – the tension ramps up and so does the comedy. Mrs Scaife might be a ridiculous figure, but she’s also sinister. Juliet wins her trust, though, and ends up attending a soirée in a mansion on Pall Mall, where the cloak-and-daggerism becomes deliciously suspenseful.

But Juliet’s little team also comes under a cloud, with whispered accusations about double agents.

The next stage of Transcription jumps forward 10 years, when Juliet is now a producer at the BBC Schools division and running an occasional safe house for MI5. Atkinson uses Juliet’s BBC job as a platform to explore the post-war role of the state broadcaster, with a range of damaged eccentrics and pedants trying to create wholesome programmes for children.

It’s all very routine, until Juliet receives an anonymous note saying, “You will pay for what you did,” and realises she is being followed. This is a new nightmare: “She sensed something murky was creeping towards her.”

Strangely, the second half of the book sags a little, possibly because Juliet’s response to this mysterious danger is so pragmatic. She forms a list of possible suspects – including members of the Dolphin Square group – tracks them down, then ticks them off.

There are some genuine moments of menace, but also too many “coincidental” appearances of people from her past and a sudden almost-laughable confrontation.

The final part of the book travels back to 1950 and reveals “what she did”. It’s brutal and leads to a revelation that is not entirely convincing. Transcription is a book of two halves, but I still adore Atkinson’s writing. 

TRANSCRIPTION, by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, $38)

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.