Novel: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Traditional spy novels can have a major drawback: a general sameness, particularly when it comes to milieu and theme. I’m new to Kate Atkinson’s work, but it quickly became clear while reading Transcription (2018) that she’s not a traditional spy novelist. Even as the book pushes all the appropriate buttons of the espionage genre, it has a distinctly different feel, which as a seasoned fan of spy fiction I found totally refreshing.

Transcription’s protagonist is Juliet Armstrong, a sardonic BBC radio producer in 1950 London whose wartime past comes back to haunt her. As a young woman during the war, Juliet landed rather accidentally at MI-5, helping an agent named Godfrey Toby keep track of pro-fascist subversives in England, first as a clerk and later as a fledgling field agent. When she bumps into Toby a decade later, he claims not to recognize her, and she senses new intrigue in the offing; sure enough, a new sequence of events forces her to reflect on the formative life lessons—and traumas—of her wartime exploits.

With a narrative that ricochets confidently through time, flashing back and forward to fill in tantalizing gaps, Transcription is a riveting spy novel, painting a vivid picture of its small corner of World War II history. It hits all the genre sweet spots, from the tropes to the tradecraft. But Juliet’s witty, sarcastic inner voice, and her one-step-removed attitude about her work and its value, lends a fresh perspective to the familiar themes and plot twists. The ethical compromises and ambiguities of the spy’s secret work are examined with the same seriousness, but with an amusing literary spin, thanks Juliet’s side-eye viewpoint. Transcription also resonates strongly with the Fake News era, as Juliet’s assignments and interactions with a variety of duplicitous, complex colleagues combine to gradually, fundamentally alter her relationship with reality. She’s a delightful unreliable narrator, and her story is more than just a classic spy tale; it resonates powerfully with contemporary issues as well. A compelling, thoroughly enjoyable read.

Scroll to Top