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!