Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.




15 thoughts on “Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

  1. smithereens December 11, 2018 / 1:16 pm

    This one is on my list, I’m glad you liked it. I hadn’t heard about Jackson Brodie… you made my day, thank you (happy dance!!)


    • Café Society December 11, 2018 / 3:40 pm

      That’s my second happy dance of the day! Ive just delighted a visiting friend with the same news.


  2. FictionFan December 11, 2018 / 8:39 pm

    I lost touch with Kate Atkinson’s books years ago, and I don’t know why since I always enjoyed her. This one, despite the muted acclaim, actually appeals more to me than the last two did, based on blurbs alone. I hope to get to it next year. And one day I’ll read the Brodie books…


    • Café Society December 11, 2018 / 9:00 pm

      The Brodie books are definitely your sort of thing, FF. I am envious of you having them to read for the first time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cathy746books December 11, 2018 / 8:55 pm

    I do enjoy Kate Atkinson’s writing. Look forward to getting to this one.


    • Café Society December 11, 2018 / 9:04 pm

      It’s certainly very readable, Cathy, but it didn’t make me think as much as some of her other books.


      • Cathy746books December 11, 2018 / 9:11 pm

        I’ve only read two of her previous books and have a few more of her back catalogue to read before I get to this one.


  4. mlegan December 11, 2018 / 10:38 pm

    I really enjoyed this one, too. Perhaps not as much as the two earlier books. But Jackson Brodie – I think I read the first one and then they dropped off my radar. Off to add them to the list.


    • Café Society December 11, 2018 / 10:40 pm

      For me the second Brodie, One Good Turn, was the best. I’m hoping that having had a few years away from them Big Sky will be as good as that one was.


  5. Helen December 12, 2018 / 9:36 pm

    I haven’t read this yet but I do have a copy, so I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed it despite it not receiving the usual acclaim. Good news about Big Sky – I still need to read the fourth Jackson Brodie book first, though!


    • Café Society December 12, 2018 / 9:49 pm

      I think it’s a really good weekend read when you don’t want to be too challenged but want something with some intelligence behind it.


  6. Laila@BigReadingLife December 13, 2018 / 8:09 pm

    I enjoyed this very much simply because Atkinson is such a delightful writer – Juliet wasn’t my favorite character but I found her situations interesting and liked getting a glimpse into the world of MI-5 in wartime. I am THRILLED to hear about a return to Jackson Brodie! Case Histories is one of my favorite books ever. Now I have an excuse to reread the rest of the series before the new one comes out!


    • Café Society December 13, 2018 / 8:33 pm

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one who always has to read at least the most recent book in a series before the next one comes out.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Jenny @ Reading the End December 14, 2018 / 12:03 am

    I really enjoyed Transcription! It made me think that I should check out more of Kate Atkinson’s backlist, but I tried that and it was no good — I got bored of Human Croquet almost immediately. It’s weird! It’s like I only enjoy her more recent books, but why?


    • Café Society December 16, 2018 / 3:03 pm

      I think her style has changed over the years, Jenny, but you might do better with her very first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.


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