Heather Allen is the book reviewer/columnist for the Penticton Western News

Heather Allen is the book reviewer/columnist for the Penticton Western News

Armchair Book Club: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription stands well among her work

Heather Allen is a columnist for the Penticton Western News

Does the world need another Second World War spy novel?

Quite possibly, if it sheds new light on history, as Kate Atkinson’s new novel Transcription does. Her book focuses on ordinary Britons pulled into espionage and explores the usefulness, or lack thereof, of much of the information that was gathered.

Based on information about real-life spies, Atkinson creates a paradoxically naïve and brazen main character, Juliet Armstrong. Recently orphaned, Juliet applies to the British War Office in 1940. First directed to be a secretary, she is soon handpicked for MI5 work.

Lying her way through her interview, for no reason other than for her own amusement, she unwittingly shows herself to have the qualities of an excellent spy. Although Juliet shows promise, she becomes a glorified secretary, transcribing conversations on the other side of the wall of a bugged London apartment, where Nazi sympathizers meet.

In most novels, something great would be revealed in these conversations. But this work is day after day of talk of the weather and biscuits and pets. Much of the dialogue isn’t even intelligible enough for Juliet to transcribe, thanks to the recording technology of the day.

Her transcriptions don’t seem to expose the movers and shakers of Nazi sympathizers in Britain but do expose to the reader the huge amount of nationalistic energy that went into what was often nothing more than busy work.

A bit player, Juliet hits the glass ceiling of spy work—until chance circumstances change everything. As the story builds, Atkinson shows how espionage is a mix of tedium and sheer terror, and how the act of taking on multiple identities can make it easy to lose oneself and one’s ultimate sense of purpose.

Readers may remember Kate Atkinson as the multi-award-winning writer of recent books, A God in Ruins (2015) and Life after Life (2013), a unique novel that keeps looping back in time, creating alternate universes for the protagonist. Transcription stands well amongst these other thoughtful works.

Heather Allen is the book reviewer/columnist for the Penticton Western News, she can be reached at allenh@telus.net.

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

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