Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, an intriguing tale

 In Opinion

Transcription, written by Kate Atkinson, offers a tale of spies, Nazi sympathizers and double agents. Set in London, the novel bounces back and forth between two time periods, 1940 and 1950 and keeps on surprising the reader with plot twists.

In 1940, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited to work for MI5. When France falls she is asked to take part in an operation to catch Nazi sympathizers. An agent is posing as a Gestapo officer and has potential collaborators making weekly reports to him at his apartment. These reports are being secretly recorded in the apartment next door.

Juliet is tasked with transcribing these recordings but soon takes on a more active role. Her mission is to infiltrate a group of sympathizers, posing as one of them with the intent of finding the Red Book, which is thought to contain the names of upper class members of a network of potential collaborators.

As Juliet becomes more involved she finds that, in the intelligence world, things are not as straightforward as they first appear. Who can and can’t be trusted? Why has she been asked to keep an eye on Mr. Toby, who is posing as the Gestapo agent? Could he really be a Gestapo agent? Special Branch officers are also investigating her boss, Perry Gibbons who seems to be hiding something.

Jumping forward to 1950, Juliet now occasionally works with MI5 but her main job is as a radio producer for the BBC.  However, it seems her past has caught up with her when she receives an anonymous note that says, “You will pay for what you did”.  Has one of the people she spied on returned intent on revenge? 

This sets Juliet off on an attempt to discover who is threatening her. That means going back over the events of 10 years ago. In doing so, the reader is told a fuller story of what happened in 1940. 

Adding to the mix, Juliet is asked to serve as a minder for a defecting Czech scientist, for one night. This simple task goes awry when he disappears the next day. Juliet thought she was handing him off to MI5 agents, but it appears they were not. Did the Russians get him back or did the Americans snatch him? Was Juliet set up?

When we are first introduced to Juliet she is a typical 18 year-old embarking on what she sees as an adventure. Capable and smart, she is also a bit naïve and more interested in romance than transcribing the words of Nazi collaborators. 

Ten years later, she is a jaded, world-weary woman, able of effortlessly assume names and identities and lie as she seeks to unravel the mystery of who is out to get her. A reader will enjoy finding out what brought about these changes in her.

This is Atkinson’s tenth novel. Her previous books have won awards and a devoted following, they will not be disappointed by this clever story.

Transcription, written by Kate Atkinson is published by Bond Street Books (September 2018).

Basil Guinane is a retired associate dean of the School of Media Studies at Humber college, a former librarian and an avid reader.

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