Still a teenager and reeling over her mother’s death from cancer, Juliet Armstrong is unexpectedly recruited into MI5. At first, she works in the converted cells of Wormwood Scrubs in administrative support, but soon Peregrine “Perry” Gibbons asks her to join a special operation. Agent “Godfrey Toby” is posing as a representative of the Third Reich and has several contacts who share their knowledge with him. Her job is to transcribe the recordings of his meetings. When Gibbons wants to infiltrate the fascist-leaning Right Club, though, he sends Juliet into the field.
The action unfolds in two timelines, 1940, during Juliet’s wartime MI5 service, and ten years later, when she works for BBC Radio and ghosts from her past haunt her present and push her towards a reckoning, with bookend chapters from 1981. I’d not thought much about domestic spying in Britain during World War II, and Transcription unpeels a layer off this topic. Not surprisingly for a novel about espionage, the themes of truth versus lies and about the nature of dual (or more) identities as well as group loyalty in a time of conflict are woven through the text.
The narrative rewards a close reading. I am still unpacking some of the details. For example, the book is full of parenthetical references from Perry, usually about tradecraft, and perhaps represent Juliet’s only training. Additionally, several phrases are repeated frequently (e.g,. If you’re going to tell a lie… and We’ve had rather a shock). Sounds and rhymes are emphasizes, with Mr. Toby, for example, having a characteristic rat-a-tat-TAT from a silver-tipped cane he always carries.
Unlike Juliet, a bona fide city dweller, Perry is drawn to the natural world (later becoming known as “Mr. Nature” due to his radio programs). He takes her to watch otters and observe other woodland creatures, including boxing hares. Birds also loom large in the book. Juliet is more associated with jewelry: a pair of diamond earrings borrowed to complete her transformation into a young woman of society, a ring from an aborted engagement, and strings of pearls. (Pearls are mentioned no fewer than ten times.)
I really loved reading this book, but it is one of those novels that for me, I dislike more and more as I have distance from the reading experience. There is nothing to fault in the writing, and the stylistic choices regarding themes and motifs are interesting if dense.
Atkinson also makes full use of literary references, pulling from myths, fairy tales, the Bible, Shakespeare, the 1940s cinema, and classical music. A full medley of spices, though I wondered if the recipe would have been more effective had Atkinson used fewer references more judiciously. It almost felt like she had a checklist of references she wanted to pack into the book without a clear purpose.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with the book is that it took a completely unexpected turn and there was very little evidence for the plot twist. Especially when the book is dense with references and call-backs, having such a development with no warning feels manipulative and cheap, although I would listen to an argument that this reading experience–being surprised by a completely unexpected revelation–could very well represent MI5 who were so focused on fascists and Hitler’s allies that they failed to see threats from other quarters.
In any case, while I was quite enamored with the book as I read it, I am feeling disillusioned now that a few days have elapsed. I feel a bit manipulated and cross with Atkinson. If anyone else has read Transcription, I’d love to know your reactions.