Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson likes to have fun with her readers. Likes to play games with them. In this case, she tells the story of Juliet Armstrong who takes on a job during World War II of transcribing the conversations of British fellow travelers who think they are plotting in hehalf of Hitler, whereas the British government is actually following every move they make.

But Juliet is an unprepossessing 18-year-old who likes to poke fun at herself and at others, and she regards her assignment as a kind of lark. It is also an interesting assignment on the fringes of espionage. But when the war ends, her adventures turn much darker, and she is beseiged by unreliable protagonists on all sides. Indeed, these men are not the reliable government agents she once thought. And she becomes not the innocent teenager.

The result is a novel that confused this reader, and that confounded many a reviewer. For we, and they, were no longer reading the story we once thought we were. And we began asking ourselves if this was a legitimate way to tell a story of espionage in World War II. Because, first of all, it challenges our interpretation of the young girl through whose viewpoint we are witnessing this story. Of course, we must also admit that an espionage story by its own nature is deceptive. So we ask why can this story not be one as well?

Indeed, deception seems to be the point of this novel. Deception of and by the British government, as well as deception of the reader. And yet, despite all the deception, I found this novel to be a delight to read, not least because of Juliet’s clever, often spiteful, always provocative comments about her own unfulfilled romantic desires as well as her clever perception of the foibles of those she encounters. This also helps us to identify with her, with her cleverness. There is even a bit of adventure among upper class Nazi sympathizers when Juliet is forced into deceiving her hosts and escape being discovered by shinnying down a vine outside a bedroom window.

Our interest is further developed by three plot developments. The first comes five years after the war. Juliet’s assignment has ended, of course, and she recognizes in the street a man she once worked for; but he denies ever knowing her. Why, we are asked to ponder. The second event takes place when a Nazi woman sympathizer accidentally discovers the government’s effort to entrap her and her Nazi friends, and is brutally murdered lest she betray the plot. What will be the repercussions of that? And the last is a mysterious note to Juliet that says, in effect, ‘you will pay for what you did.” Who is it who sent the note, how threatening should Juliet take it, and what is the “it” she will be paying for?

And then we see Juliet in a whole new light, when a mysterious gentleman invades her premises at the end and reveals to us her true character. She has been too clever by half, as they say. And equally so has the author. We thus feel betrayed by both the character we have come so close to and by the author who has lead us so astray.

Which makes one ask: how legitimate are these surprise endings when they totally reverse the hero or heroine’s character? Yes, such surprises play a role in the real world of espionage, but how legitimate are they in the world of fiction?

Lisa Allardice buys into this in her review in The Observer, “Atkinson is too accomplished and careful a writer,” she says, “for [such literary maneuvering] to be sloppiness.” And “Juliet’s knowing riffs on [espionage] cliché and metaphor suggest” this. She even adds: “Terms such as ‘postmodern’ and ‘metafiction’ seem far too heavy for novels a enjoyable as Atkinson’s…[who has long] been chipping away at the fourth wall, micheviously drawing attention to her craft.” She cites as another example Atkinson’s heroine Ursula in Life After Life, who continually dies and is continually resurrected.

In an Author’s Note, Atkinson writes that the plot of this novel is based on reality. There was a real person, Eric Roberts, who pretended to be a Gestapo agent in England and who worked with British Fascists to identify Nazi sympathizers. And transcripts of his meetings with them do exist. But once the author discoveed that fact, she says,“ I went ahead and invented whatever I liked….If I had to describe the process, I would say it felt like a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.”

Allardice defends all this literary maneuvering and trickery in The Observer. “Some readers might find [this novel] slight rather than clever slight of hand, but Atkinson always puts on a damn fine show. As Juliet is told, never forget the first rule of espionage: ‘If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one.’”

If there is one weakness to the novel, it is in the characterizatons of the variety of Juliet’s male supervisors. It is often difficult to tell them apart, for they represent their government role in this complex story rather than become  a distinct character who ejoys human relationships. But is not that often the function of characters in an espionage novel?

The complexity of this espionage story does make me wonder about my interest in future work by this author. What will interest me is an imaginative use of structure, and the new perspective time might bring. But, please, no similar deception of the reader. (December, 2019)

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