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.