BOOK REVIEW: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

A spy novel about the Second World War is essentially the last place you would think to look for humour, but in her latest novel Transcription, acclaimed author Kate Atkinson somehow manages to authentically portray one of history’s most devastating events through the eyes of a sarcastic, self-centred 18 year old girl. The result? A hilarious, endearing, and profoundly moving story about growing up.

Juliet Armstrong, a plucky teenager in London, is tapped to join MI-5 during the Second World War. Rather than being assigned to an exciting spy operation, Juliet is asked to transcribe meetings between an undercover operative and his fascist-sympathizing informants. In a tiny apartment with a team of eccentrics, Juliet spends her days sitting at a desk typing out recorded conversations.

Despite the war raging on across the channel, Juliet, still a teenager, craves adventure, excitement and romance. She narrates her work with MI-5, and the toll it takes on her later life, with wit, colour, and a touch of apathy. At one moment she seems brilliant, at another immature. She oscillates between being bored by the tedious work and excited by the romantic notion of life as a spy. Despite a situation that has forced her to grow up fast, Juliet’s personality is one forged by youth. While human suffering is at its worst, she is still thinking very earnestly about her romantic life and her desire to get married. For each moment in which Juliet seems older than her years there is another where her actions remind the reader that she is barely even a legal adult.

Transcription begins ten years after the war has ended. Juliet, having left MI-5, now works for the BBC. Her sarcasm and humour remain intact, but her wartime experiences linger, and when figures from her past begin to appear once again she realizes she may not have escaped from that part of her life.

Atkinson’s strength lies in creating her characters. Each one is an original, refined individual with a plausible backstory and airtight reasons for their actions and behaviours. Their lives, though unlikely to intersect in any other circumstances, are meshed together because of the war, and even years later they struggle to extract themselves from the web they’ve created.

Transcription is at once absurd and real, moving and hilarious, ridiculous and humane. It’s a story about loss, but also one about choice. Centring a story about such a massive tragedy on one young woman draws into focus the effect war has on each person individually. Juliet, though not on a battlefield, wages her own personal war, contributing what she can to the cause at a massive personal cost.

This novel reminded me of my love of history and historical fiction, and also reminded me of another book I read this year called Where’d You Go Bernadette (read my review here). Both novels share a common theme of telling stories of hardship, loss, and personal problems with just the right amount of humour and wit.