An idiosyncratic spy novel with a fine sense of the absurd: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, review

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Robert McDermott presents Housewives Choice at Broadcasting House in June 1958.
Robert McDermott presents Housewives Choice at Broadcasting House in June 1958. Credit: HultoN Archive/Russell Knight

TS Eliot said that Nathaniel Hawthorne “had even the minor token of literary genius, the genius for titles”, and the same is true of Kate Atkinson. Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird and Started Early, Took My Dog – the titles would be the best thing about her novels, if the novels didn’t happen to be very, very good.

Her 10th, Transcription, a spy thriller of sorts, has easily the least inspiring title of any of her books; indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of any spy novel with a duller title. But its off-puttingness is thematically appropriate, as this is a book about the unexpected way in which excitement can intrude into a life that looks squarely set for unleavened mundanity. Like the hollowed-out Loeb’s Classics used to smuggle heroin in Atkinson’s 2008 When Will There Be Good News? (another brilliant title), there is much more that is thrillingly dangerous in this book than its appearance might suggest.

Transcription was inspired by two real-life figures. One was Joan Miller, an undercover agent for MI5 who infiltrated a group of British Fascist sympathisers known as “the Right Club” in the early years of the Second World War. The other was Eric Roberts, an apparently ordinary bank clerk who, under the name Jack King, posed as a Gestapo agent and became the harmless receptacle of information that treacherous Britons longing to be part of the Third Reich would otherwise have transmitted to Germany.

His meetings with fifth columnists in his flat were recorded and typed up, and it was seeing these transcripts in the National Archives that fired Atkinson’s imagination. “There is no record in the public domain of who typed them,” she writes in an afterword, “and as I spent a period of my life as an audio typist I felt an odd affinity with this anonymous typist, especially when, on the odd occasion, her own personality breaks suddenly through.”

So Atkinson has taken as her heroine a typist with an abundance of personality. In 1940 Juliet Armstrong is 18 and alone in the world – mother newly dead, father never identified – when she is recruited to a clerical job with MI5. Atkinson’s version of Eric Roberts is an “unassuming, Pooterish figure” called Godfrey Toby. Juliet is soon promoted to the job of sitting in his flat in Dolphin Square and transcribing his conversations with the fifth columnists. Although she doesn’t think much of her boss Perry’s reasons for finding her invaluable – “No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong” – she is eventually given a more exciting undercover role.

Atkinson alternates her account of Juliet’s adventures in 1940 with another storyline, set 10 years later, when Juliet is working as a producer of children’s radio programmes at the BBC, notably a series designed to teach children about figures from history called Can I Introduce You? (Atkinson’s genius for titles clearly extends to pastiche, although I don’t think the Auntie of 1950 would have permitted “Can” for “May”.) These sections have much W1A-ish comedy, but the thrills are not over: Juliet is nursing more than one secret connected with her old life in MI5, and her life may be in danger again.

A genius for titles: Kate Atkinson Credit: Andrew Crowley

Those who have read Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie crime novels will know she takes an unconventional approach to writing genre fiction, and this is an unusual take on the espionage novel – apart from its refusal to answer some of the mysteries it sows, which is de rigueur for books at the literary end of the spy fiction spectrum. Juliet’s romance with her boss takes a decidedly ungeneric course, and the sporadic moments of excitement – what a film guidance rating would describe as “mild peril” – are deliberately diluted by Juliet’s ironic attitude to them. When a villainess is bearing down on her hiding place: “She might as well have been singing Fee-fi-fo-fum for the terror she was inducing… Oh for heaven’s sake, Juliet thought. What an exasperating woman.”

This regular deployment of bathos – a familiar Atkinson trick – undercuts all moments of emotion and solemnity too. Reflecting on why she eats so much, Juliet “wondered if there was some emptiness inside her that she was trying to fill, but, really, she suspected that she was just hungry a lot”. There is a lot of deep feeling in this novel, but it never loses its sense of the absurdity of human beings even in their most tragic or noble moments.

Atkinson’s recent novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, also focused on the Second World War, but they were massive, chronologically complex books that made hay with notions of genre and reality. Transcription is something of a bagatelle in comparison, being relatively unambitious. Fiction is slightly too much in the service of fact here, too: in attempting to devise a plot that can encompass all the real-life stories she wants to tell, Atkinson leaves her workings too visible. 

But the plot will be forgotten a few minutes after you’ve finished reading; what matters are the individual scenes and phrases that stay in the mind. If this is one of her minor works, how vehemently most novelists will wish to produce a masterpiece as good.

At one point a character quotes Horace Walpole: “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” It seems a typically Atkinsonian joke that the quoter strikes Juliet as insufferably pompous, because the phrase could be Atkinson’s credo – although she ensures that Juliet, and therefore her readers, are always thinking and feeling simultaneously.

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