Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite living writers. I’ve read all her books, so any new book from her is a cause to celebrate. Especially exciting is the fact that Atkinson doesn’t just stick to one thing in her books. She writes a lot of historical fiction, but she’ll also play around with speculative fiction, and she’s written a fantastic crime series. In Transcription, she stays with the World War II setting of her two previous books, but this is a different kind of story altogether. Instead of being an introspective (sometimes speculative) novel about the nature of life and death, Atkinson’s newest book is spy thriller.
Of course, Atkinson being Atkinson, she plays around a bit with form. There are three timelines, the framing timeline is set in the 1980s, with Juliet Armstrong looking back on her life. Then there’s the 1950 timeline, with Juliet working at the BBC after the war and uncovering new mysteries related to her war work. And then there’s the 1940 storyline, in which Juliet works for MI5.
Juliet’s main job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between a government agent and a group of Nazi sympathizers. Most of these sympathizers are women looking to help their cause but not able to do a whole lot. By reporting their activities to a government agent posing as a Nazi, they not only provide possible intelligence to the British government but are prevented from making contact with actual Nazis.
Her other task is to pose as a possible recruit for Nazi sympathizers. For this work, she takes on a false identity and wins her way into a fascist social circle and seeks out incriminating information on their activities. On top of that, a high-level supervisor at MI5 has asked her to keep an eye on a colleague.
One of the fun things about this book, about almost any spy story, is seeing Juliet juggle her multiple identities. Atkinson cleverly shows Juliet’s gift for concealment early on, when we see her bluffing her way through an interview for M15. Yet I ended up questioning Juliet’s observational abilities at times. She doesn’t appear to be a perfect spy, but it occurred to me that in wartime, when everyone has to contribute, perfection may be less important than basic competence and a willingness to take a risk. At any rate, I liked seeing her wrangle her way out of tricky situations, even if I got frustrated at what looked to me like a tendency to miss what was right in front of her. (I read this while also being immersed in The Americans, so spy stories are very much my thing right now.)
By the end of the book, some secrets have been revealed that cast previous events in a new light. One revelation felt a bit like a cheat to me, creating tension in a dishonest way. But the groundwork for the rest was well laid early on, if you know what you’re seeing. As it turns out, we readers need some of the skills of a spy to see what’s in front of us.