Kate Atkinson is one of those writers whose works I seek on blind faith alone. I don’t need to pick up the book and read the blurb and wrinkle my nose in perturbation as to whether I do actually want to read it. I know I do. And for those followers of this blog, I thank you humbly, for this is a library book, you know my intention with regard to the library. I snuck it in between the many proofs and arcs piling up.
Atkinson has a distinct style which has developed across her oeuvre. Transcription occupies a similar historic setting to Life after Life and A God in Ruins but enjoys a more or less conventional structure with a prologue and conclusion in 1981 and the meat of the novel in 1940 and 1950. Summarily it’s a WWII spy yarn and a damned good one. Female protagonist, Juliette Armstrong, spy name Iris Carter Jenkins, spies her way though the war and ends up at the BBC where she comes to understand that the past never quite goes away.
The research is impeccable and Atkinson conveys so perfectly the quintessential Britishness of a WWII drawing room of a privileged member of society. Poor Mrs. Scaife! Did she truly believe or was she just playing the role she thought she should play? You can hear the chink of the delicate Sevres china and taste the tea almost. You can hear the impassioned voices of a cliqued society caught up in their notions of the injustice of war and their ideas to solve and resolve a conflict so far from their own realities. The utilitarian coldness of MI5 is aptly realised and the reader can almost smell the paper clipped offices and the stuffiness of civil servants required to fulfil daring roles that their outward demeanour defies.
Atkinson creates a palpable atmosphere of a covert MI5 operation where the assorted characters remain one side of cliche or caricature. It’s very cleverly done. You can picture them all so easily, hear their voices even and there is something so stalwartly English about them all apart from those who aren’t English of course And there’s a humour running through the narrative which is quite delightful.
And if, as a reader, you start to sit back and just ride the crest of the fictional wave, sit up, for there are some pithy observations made that resonate quite pertinently.
‘Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.’
Is the entire novel a satire on our failure to understand prejudice and the qualities war evokes in the humblest of breasts? No matter. It’s a rollicking good yarn that demonstrates Atkinson as a competent purveyor of espionage. Should Le Carre be worried? No, I don’t think so. Ms. Atkinson has so many strings to her bow that she has progressed to the entire string section of the orchestra, I think.
If you’re wondering about the flamingo on the cover, I’m not going to tell you. Go read the book.
My thanks to my local library, manned entirely by volunteers because of local authority cuts , for keeping a copy of this book on their shelves.