When a novel is described as “a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special.
As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.
Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war. She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.
Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.
For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities. Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.
It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce. The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery, while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.
The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.
Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled. Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious. It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.
This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be. I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.