Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!
Without knowing it I stumbled into a mystery series. Typical Sunday library book browsing: I was looking for Kate Atkinson’s God in Ruins for book club (and to follow-up on my enjoyment of Life After Life) and it wasn’t where it should be on the shelf. Instead I found One Good Turn with the handy (thanks, library staff) “mystery” sticker on the spine. And I thought, yeah, okay, I’m in for a mystery. Continue reading
A few years ago I tried to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I made it 20 or 30 pages in and thought ‘meh,’ and gave up. So when my book club selected it, I was reluctant (sorry book club). And then I was chagrined because this is a terrific read. Sure you have to make it past the initial 30 pages (evidence if you’re ever looking for it that a book should be given a fair shot – whatever that might be – before quitting) and the initial conceit which takes repetition to become clear for the reader: our protagonist, Ursula, can die and be reborn in her same body/family/set of experiences. The novel explores the extent to which her actions can control or change the outcome of her life (and the limits of these choices – how and in what circumstances does she end up right back in the same troubled spot or… dead). There are a few instances where we turn our attention to how other people influence the outcome of our life, but usually this is cast in relation to how Ursula reacts and acts against the other. I did think this was a potential area of conceptual weakness as (to me anyway) it placed too much agency on the individual in relation to an other.
That said, the book does do a masterful job exploring the limits of individual agency in relation to society or community. Ursula is born in England in 1911 and so we witness through her experiences WWI and WWII, with far more attention given to WWII (which makes sense given her age and the narrative point of view). In setting her experience against these historical backdrops, the novel invites readers to play the thought experiment so often brought up in History classes of ‘what if X had changed’ (e.g. Hitler had been killed). (In the case of ‘what if Hitler had been killed the novel is less than subtle and just… plays out ‘what if Hitler had been killed’ in a manner that this reader found a bit too obvious for total enjoyment (in fact, C., at book club raised the idea that this may have been the creative entry point for the author that allowed her to imagine the life after life conceit).
Putting aside the conceptual questions of the novel, I also appreciated the quality of writing that is at once terrific and unpretentious. The exploration of gender is nuanced and provocative. I do think the novel lets questions of class slide easily by (particularly knowing that the post WWI period triggered a mass shift in class structure – the novel dodges by having our patriarch a ‘banker’ and so, presumably, immune to market fluctuation. That is another minor complaint – Hugh (the father) – also fights in WWI and comes back remarkably (okay, impossibly) unscathed in body and mind, perhaps a necessary characterization to allow him to continue to stand as an emotional cornerstone in the eyes of Ursula. But I digress).
All said, I’d encourage you to read the novel if only for the creativity of its plot and conceptual conceit. But I don’t have to leave it at that, I can also encourage you because of its great writing, character development and exploration of gender and history.
Oh and my other book club is taking up God in Ruins (Atkinson’s novel following Life After Life) next month, so stay tuned for review part the second.