Much hype has surrounded Transcription for the best part of a year now, though we’ve seen and heard nothing more than the title and the cover image of a flamingo. For a book that isn’t published until September this year, it has a lot to live up to. However its author is popular, multi-million selling Kate Atkinson, and this is her first literary outing since the critically acclaimed A God in Ruins in 2015. So it is worth the wait.
Atkinson returns to World War 2, a period becoming her favourite setting, following on from the aforementioned A God in Ruins and its 2014 prequel Life After Life, and introduces us to Juliet Armstrong, eighteen years old, orphaned, alone and naive in 1940s London. Given a job as a typist by MI5, she spends her days typing the transcripts of the title from recordings of British Nazi sympathisers. It is dull work until she is given work as a spy with a mission to accomplish, and before long it’s the fifties, where she now works in the children’s programming department of BBC Broadcasting House, and this is where the story really gets going, with espionage, peril, intrigue. Receiving a note warning “You will pay for what you did”, it is clear the full story of her secret agent past, so far unknown to the reader, will catch up with her. To explain more would reveal too much of the plot, but rest assured the purpose of the cover image flamingo is revealed; fleetingly, yes, but central to the overall plot of the novel in what it represents. There are references to present times, for example Perry’s comment that the clowns in power are the dangerous ones, but on the whole Transcription feels like an engaging, escapist romp, and the under-wraps plot publicity is welcome – simply sit back, open the page and enjoy the ride.
The filling of the story splits between Juliet’s 1940s MI5 life and her 1950s BBC life, and is wrapped either end with a brief glimmer of a 1980s’ Juliet, as she hangs between life and death, questioning the purpose of her existence. I prefer 1950s Juliet, she has become more plucky and, dare I say, interesting. “Juliet’s war” is wrapped up succinctly, for that is not the story, and as usual for Atkinson, the main focus of her tale is characterisation. There is however a predictable outcome to Juliet’s brief 40s’ engagement, but Atkinson provides us with an ending that will thankfully keep us guessing – I want my own conclusion, and it almost seems we’re not allowed that anymore, with constant sequels to books, films, telly series…
I tried to highlight the lines I loved, but became too transfixed by the story, and when I went back to try again it seemed that every word was perfect. Atkinson is a master of her craft and the fast-paced, lightly humorous Transcription is a joy for her fans.
Transcription is out today published by Doubleday.