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In ‘Transcription,’ Kate Atkinson Delivers a Story of Wartime Espionage

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Kate Atkinson has cited “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as one of her favorite books, so it’s fitting that her new novel, “Transcription,” has its own version of the White Rabbit. He appears relatively early in Atkinson’s story: only one jump back in time after a brief 1981 sequence in which the heroine, Juliet Armstrong, is hit by a car. Let it be said — again — that the endlessly devious Atkinson (“Life After Life,” “Case Histories”) knows how to start a book with a bang.

Very quickly we are in 1950, reading a chapter titled “Mr. Toby! Mr. Toby!” after the rabbit — a man Juliet spots on a London street. She knew him extremely well during the war, from his work habits to the freesia-scented soap at his home to the ever-wondered-about question of whether there was a Mrs. Toby. (Juliet had been asked by her co-workers to find out). Yet the man in the present day says: “I think you have confused me with someone else. Good day to you.” And away he goes, leaving a special sort of London fog in his wake.

In “Transcription,” 1950 is a time for resolving all that was unleashed in 1940, when Juliet, 18, was recruited into the world of espionage. Atkinson beautifully conjures London under siege, with the blackout and the bombing and the “ack-ack guns being assembled” in Hyde Park.

Juliet is a young typist, plucked out of virtually nowhere and taken under the wing of Peregrine Gibbons (“Do call me Perry”) to work in Dolphin Square, right near the place the fascist politician Oswald Mosley calls home. Juliet was not raised by patricians, but she has a certain flair for passing among them. Part of her job will eventually entail mixing socially with the fiercely pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic Mrs. So-and-Sos who gather to discuss what a nuisance the Jews are. But the heart of the operation is bringing British informants to MI5’s fully bugged apartment, so comfortingly close to Mosley’s, for meetings with Mr. Toby, who poses as a Gestapo officer and elicits everything they’ve picked up. Juliet’s annotated transcripts of the talks make up snippets of the book. They let Atkinson explore the tapings from a heretofore unexamined point of view.

Juliet’s discreet but outsize personality inevitably attracts attention. When one of the socialites invites her to a party, for which Perry supplies a gown and rented diamond earrings, she thinks: “Why not just give me a pumpkin and six white mice and be done with it?” She is introduced around as “our new little storm trooper,” and adapts dramatically well to the dangerous new turf on which she finds herself. There are Hitchcockian plot twists to her time spent with this crowd. Atkinson manages them deftly, and equips her protagonist with the streak of ruthlessness, and sometimes cruelty, that she needs to cope.

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Kate AtkinsonCreditEuan Myles

When the book spends time in 1950 (the plot doesn’t unfold in chronological order), we get a better idea of who Juliet was, who she became and what her bruising life has done to her. The fact that she began as an eager romantic who had no understanding of men’s sexual proclivities has certainly taken its toll. So has the amount of premature death she has seen.

The book turns rueful, jaded and more than a little melodramatic as the bills come due for certain of Juliet’s heedless past actions. And there is a mess of a denouement in which someone — and it could be anyone — wants vengeance on her. The list of suspects could have benefited from a snip or two.

These are not deterrents to reading this novel; they are hiccups, at worst. I am one of many readers who view the publication date of each Atkinson novel as an answer to the title question of one of her earlier books, “When Will There Be Good News?” This one is a major event. Juliet lives a full, vibrant life over the course of these pages; the war is fought indelibly; the espionage details are a new part of the Atkinson oeuvre. The book ends with a chatty, opinionated author’s note about source materials and methods, in which Atkinson describes the book as “a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.”

The story of the British double agent known as “Jack King,” who posed (as Mr. Toby does) as an ordinary bank clerk but in fact worked for MI5, was the first kernel of inspiration for “Transcription.” King, later revealed to be Eric Roberts, successfully posed as a Gestapo agent and attracted Third Reich devotees, though the time frame is changed here and Atkinson conflates him with another British spy to get him closer to Oswald Mosley’s turf. Other real people crop up, like the Russian émigré Anna Wolkoff, who Atkinson describes “sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down.” Though Atkinson seems to have delighted in getting some things intentionally wrong, she herself worked as an “audio typist,” and brings details of that job to bear in “Transcription,” too.

Most lovably, the novel’s espionage-involved dog, Lily, is based on a real dog. Atkinson pays this dog real justice while making it clear that war is as awful for animals as it is for people.

Atkinson loves her research, but she doesn’t need much help concocting original stories that resemble no one else’s and take the breath away. Even her literary allusions sparkle. Thinking back to Juliet’s toughest romance years later, she tweaks a classic aside: “Reader, I didn’t marry him.”


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