I’ve read several of Kate Atkinson’s novels with A God in Ruins being my favorite. Her new novel Transcription is again based in England during World War 2. It’s full of MI15/British Security Service spies in hunt of traitors and moles in sympathy with Nazi Germany and then later with Stalin’s USSR. Churchill is quoted as saying there was “spy-mania” in Great Britain during these years. The public thought the country was overrun with German spies. There are several main themes running through the novel which are based on fact. One being MI15 was very instrumental in Britain’s fight against enemy espionage and in feeding Germany false information by using the Double Cross System using double agents. At the beginning of the war, the Service is grossly understaffed, and it is overwhelmed by the work increase caused by the war. This accounts why the Service hires Atkinson’s main character, 18 year old naive Juliet Armstrong to be a transcriber. Also, MI15 has to deal with British citizens, referred to as the Fifth Column, who are initially friendly toward Nazism and Communism. These sympathizers have to be spied upon to prevent domestic subversion. Furthermore, there is a gay spy- Perry Gibbons who tries to hide his sexual preference by passing off Juliet as his fiancé. Homosexuality is illegal in Britain at this time. Remember Alan Turing, the famous British code breaker during the war who later helped develop the first computer. He is chemically castrated by the British government in lieu of prison when he is prosecuted in 1952. He commits suicide in 1954.
I love spy novels, always have. I like the themes running through this novel and the way Atkinson has the two different time periods- the war years and the 1950s. I like her balance between the periods. There is a gap of a couple of decades, 1960s and 1970s when we’re told Juliet is living in Italy in an apparent successful attempt to escape the work of the Service. I would like a little more story about those years, especially the Italian lover part. Who casually mentions an Italian lover and then doesn’t give juicy details?
I have ambivalent feelings about Juliet and Atkinson’s style in developing her character. Obviously Juliet is intelligent. She attends an academically rigorous academy but drops out when her mother dies. I understand she is a thinker. I get it. I’m a 5 on the Enneagram. I am a thinker. I have a rich inner dialogue going at all times. The author puts Juliet’s inner dialogue in parenthesis. Some examples: “She was wearing a gorgeous dress. (“Schiaparelli. Ancient, of course. I’ve had nothing new since war was declared. I’ll be in rags soon”.)”; “There are difficulties ahead, but you will weather them,” she intoned. (Was the Sibyl at Delphi this insipid? Juliet wondered.)” Juliet also rhymes everyone’s name when she is introduced to them- “Lester Pelling (rhymes with lemming, Juliet thought)…” I found the parenthesis device distracting. It made Juliet always seem flippant and shallow, and I really think she had some depth to her that could have been more developed. At one point, “Juliet sighed and wondered if one day she would think herself to death. Was it possible? And would it be painful?” I never could quite decide if she was an airhead or a deep thinker with a wacky sense of humor. I would appreciate your thoughts after you read the book. And do read the book. It will be a great way to spend a winter weekend!