Transcription is the latest novel by Kate Atkinson, an acclaimed British novelist best known for her book, Life after Live, which was published in 2013. She is not as well-known in the US compared to the UK, and I had not read of her books until I heard her on the BBC’s “World Book Club” podcast that I recently started listening to. That piqued my interest, and when I saw a copy of Transcription in the “New Books” section of my local library, I picked it up right away. I have to admit to doing this with some trepidation, as I have, of late, found several critically acclaimed books hard to read and even harder to enjoy. Would this be one of those high-profile books I could not get beyond a few pages?
Thankfully, it was not. I wouldn’t say that it was immediately gripping, but it was eminently readable, and once I was about a quarter of the way into the book, I couldn’t put it down and read it all the way through. Transcription is the story of a woman, Juliet Armstrong, at two pivotal times of her life. The first is in 1940, towards the start of the Second World War, when Juliet is eighteen, has just completed secretarial school, and is unexpectedly recruited by the MI5 (the UK’s Security Service, similar to the FBI in the US) for a project aimed at hunting down Nazi sympathizers in Britain. Other European countries are starting to fall to the Germans and the war is closely approaching Britain. Juliet is at first required only to transcribe communications — hence the name Transcription for the book — that are being recorded between these sympathizers, but she is later drawn further and further into full-fledged espionage, and into some very frightening and dangerous events.
The second time we visit Juliet, it is ten years later, and she is working as a radio producer at the BBC. Her life at this time is, for the most part, routine and uneventful, until she runs into someone she was working with during her espionage days ten years earlier. This chance encounter triggers a chain of events, stirring memories that were dormant, and brings with it more figures from the past, along with fear and danger. Even after ten years, with the war long over, the espionage activities that Juliet had participated in are coming back to haunt her.
Thankfully, the book doesn’t keeping shifting back and forth between these two timelines after each and every chapter, but we do get some amount of alternation, so we don’t come to know exactly what horrific event Juliet was involved in towards the end of her espionage days in 1940 until much later in the book. This really is the main “mystery” of the book and it is revealed at the end, similar to most mystery books. And although Juliet ends up doing some espionage work during the war, Transcription is not really a conventional “spy thriller.” It is more of a dramatic novel focused on the character of Juliet, her life during the war, and the repercussions her work had even after the war was over. And while most novels do have some kind of romance in them, even if it very secondary, it was refreshing to read a book like Transcription that did not have any romance whatsoever. True, when Juliet is eighteen, she does wish at times that her attractive boss would make some romantic overtures towards her — she sees herself as being “ripe for the picking” — but this does not happen, and the novel is solidly focused on Juliet’s work life, both in 1940 as well as in 1950.
What I also appreciated about Transcription was its thoroughly unconventional plot. I did not have a clue as to where the story was headed and how it would end. Apparently, it was inspired by real life events — there are actual MI5 records of such transcripts of recordings from the war — and I was glad to learn about something I had no knowledge of.
While I would not put Transcription in the “must-read” category of books — the plot was not as gripping and somewhat convoluted, and there were so many characters that I had to keep turning back the pages to see who they were — it was an enjoyable read. Well-written and even funny at times — Juliet has a good sense of humor and we are privy to her inner thoughts as well as her smart wisecracks to others — I look forward reading more of Atkinson’s books and am happy to have discovered another author I like.
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 2018
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.