What does one look for in a potential spy? Is it loyalty to a country? Is it knowing them so thoroughly that one knows exactly what they’ll do in any situation? Or is it recognizing the ability to act and improvise on the spot? In the case of Juliet Armstrong, the protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, perhaps it’s just that there is just such an overwhelming need for relatively trustworthy women who can type quickly and made a decent cup of tea. It doesn’t take us long to know that Juliet lies compulsively, has sticky fingers, and is much more “pragmatic” than loyal. And yet, we see her play a small role in MI5’s operation to turn or arrest as many Nazi agents as they can in the months before World War II began.
We meet Juliet in 1981, decades after the events that make up the bulk of Transcription. She has just been hit by a car and is in the process of saying her last words. The people around her can’t quite make them out. Even if they did, however, they couldn’t have known what she meant. To understand, we have to go back to 1940 and 1950. In the chapters set in 1940, we see Juliet as she is inducted into MI5 and is assigned to transcribe records made by bugging an apartment where another agent meets with Nazi fifth columnists. The agent is their lead spy in a major operation to infiltrate, then arrest as many of the enemy amateur spies and saboteurs as possible. In 1950, Juliet Armstrong is a show producer for some minor radio programs put out by the BBC. It’s not glamorous at all, but it gives her good cover while she moonlights as a safe house keeper for MI5.
The 1940 and 1950 sections alternate in long chapters, lengthy enough that I felt like I had been fully immersed in one of Juliet’s “lives” before switching over to the other plot. Both plots take a while to heat up. Although Juliet dreams of adventure and possible romance as a young MI5 transcriptionist, she has weeks of dull typing ahead of her before she debuts as a field agent. In 1950, we are treated to some backstage backbiting before Juliet starts to receive threatening letters and sees signs that someone is following her.
It takes so long for the plots to get going that I was a bit frustrated. There is plenty of foreshadowing and even explicit text that lets us know that something very bad happened while Juliet was active with MI5 and that a reckoning is due. The problem is that the pacing only kicks into high gear near the very end of the novel, so that it seems like everything is happening all at once. Up until it does and questions about what’s really going on are answered, I thought I was reading a historical thriller about a bad MI5 recruit. Juliet’s acid sense of humor redeems her a bit as an interesting character, but I couldn’t figure here out until the dominos started to fall.
Transcription is a spy novel that defies a lot of the rules of the genre, for good or ill. I appreciated its originality and the way that Atkinson never let a ball or potential red herring drop as things started to spin out of control in Juliet’s life. I had a problem with the pacing. I suspect other readers will wonder, as I did, whether the ending will reward the effort it takes to get through the first half or so of the novel. I’m leaning towards a verdict of yes. However, Transcription is a novel I would recommend with caveats.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 25 September 2018.