I am, in general, a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels. I loved Life After Life, its sequel A God in Ruins, and all of the books in her Jackson Brodie series. That’s why it pains me to say I was a bit disappointed in Transcription.
Transcription tells the story of Juliet Armstrong, a young woman who is recruited by the British intelligence agency MI5 at the beginning of World War II. The main task she is charged with is transcribing the meetings among a group of British fascist sympathizers and supporters. As she is drawn further into the web of British spies and their targets, she’s left confronting the complicated question of where their sympathies truly lie, and whom she can wholly trust. Everyone seems to have a hidden motive or agenda, and her superiors even ask her to keep an eye (or two) on her fellow agents.
The sections that take place during the war are interspersed with episodes from later in Juliet’s life, when the war is over and she finds herself working for the BBC, producing children’s radio programs for the organization’s educational wing. Juliet’s life seems to have taken a drastic turn for the mundane—but then handlers from her past turn up expecting her to still perform small-scale missions for them, colleagues from the war show up acting mysteriously, and she even begins to receive threatening notes. Suddenly Juliet is back to wondering who might be after her, and who is loyal to which government, agency, or ideology.
As with all of Atkinson’s other novels, I loved the elegant writing, the complex characters, the wry humor, and the multilayered premise of the book. I was, however, disappointed with the way the post-war plot wrapped up—the explanation felt too mundane and, while I think it was meant to be humorous, it bordered on the ridiculous. And the big reveal of the one person whose allegiances were indeed not what they seemed to be struck me as rushed. I was definitely interested in the twist, but I wanted to know more, and the details on this plot point were frustratingly thin on the ground.
On the whole, I liked Transcription and would say it’s a good book in general, but perhaps not up to the standard I expect from Kate Atkinson. It’s still an interesting fictional perspective on a period in history that has definitely been oversaturated in the historical fiction genre, and reminds me of the more brutal but similarly-themed Ian McEwan novel, The Innocent.