Ghosts and Spies Emerge From London Fog in Kate Atkinson’s ‘Transcription’

Lee Polevoi



By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown

352 pages


Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, opens with her characteristic time-shift hocus-pocus. We start in London, 1980, at the scene of a pedestrian accident. Soon thereafter, it’s 1940. The victim of that accident, Juliet Armstrong, is a young woman who works for British intelligence, transcribing secret discussions among a coterie of England’s Nazi sympathizers. Later we encounter Juliet in 1950, during London’s grim postwar years.


In all of these timeframes, things, as they say, don’t go well.


For much of Transcription, it’s fun to anticipate what’s taking place before our eyes. The early sections of the novel are deft and riveting. Atkinson’s lively prose keeps the narrative humming along, as in the moment when Juliet recognizes a key figure from her time as an MI5 operative:


“He paused in his stride, his back to her. There was the lightest talcum of dandruff on the shoulders of his greasy gabardine trench. It looked the same as the one that he had worn throughout the war. Did he never buy new clothes? She waited for him to turn round and deny himself again, but after a beat he simply walked on, the cane tap-tap-tapping on the gray London pavement.”


Atkinson quickly establishes place, diction, and a credible spirit of wartime and postwar milieus—while rarely getting bogged down in unnecessary exposition. The tone in the early chapters is both keenly literary and vividly cinematic.



Confusion arises, however, with a plethora of secondary characters, i.e., the German sympathizers and double agents, some of whom are being “run” by Godfrey Tobey, some by Perry (her boss). The reader might be forgiven for wondering why many of these clandestine members of the Fifth Column talk so openly about “working for Berlin” or “spying for the Gestapo” in the midst of wartime England.


At the same time, Atkinson captures the anxiety and uncertainty of those days when England was under siege: “What if there was a greater deception game in play? What if Godfrey really was a Gestapo agent? A Gestapo agent pretending to be an MI5 agent pretending to be a Gestapo agent. It made her head hurt to think about it.” 


A sizeable portion of the close third-person point of view is framed in the shape of rhetorical questions. (“Where had he been since the end of the war? Why had he returned? And, most puzzling of all, why would he pretend not to recognize her?”) This continuous internal questioning draws undue attention to itself, diluting the tension being carefully orchestrated in the narrative.


In London, 1950, Juliet works as radio programmer for BBC, with lingering MI5 responsibilities. Several coincidental encounters occur, with characters, sinister and otherwise, reemerging from the London mist (and from her recent past) to observe and distract her. But Juliet remains oddly dismissive of these suspicious circumstances. Events are catching up with her, but her emotional response feels more like irritation than alarm.



The frivolous nature of this response, the fairly ceaseless internal monologues and an ongoing play on words, all add a dissonant element to the story. If the reader sees that life in 1950 is significantly more threatening to Juliet than Juliet herself does—after all, she’s in some sense an experienced covert operative—it creates a distance from the character that the story never really overcomes.


Late in the novel, when an act of violence occurs, the impact feels diminished by Juliet’s earlier flippant attitude towards serious events. Also, the scene feels rushed and distanced—in contrast to other similarly gruesome occurrences in recent espionage fiction, such as Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, where the horrors of murder (and its grisly aftermath) are described in visceral, shuddering terms.


Still, Atkinson is expert at moving the plot along and summing up characters in a brushstroke: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …” The clever use of transcribed conversations (with all of their miscues, mumbled words, etc.) adds to the clandestine atmosphere. Wartime and postwar England are evidently irresistible subjects for high-end novelists (see Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight), and Atkinson adds her unique, stylistic spin to the proceedings.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has recently completed a novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine

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