Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Thank you to Little, Brown and Co. and NetGalley for an early review copy of Transcription by Kate Atkinson, which will publish September 25, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters: 3.5

New (to me) words:
• flageolet – The flageolet is a woodwind instrument and a member of the fipple flute family.
• priapic – relating to or resembling a phallus.
• Tenebrism – from Italian tenebroso (“dark, gloomy, mysterious”), also occasionally called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using profoundly pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image.

Transcription zigzags between two important periods of Juliet Armstrong’s life — her work as a Transcription typist and sometime spy for MI5 during WWII and her work as a producer for the BBC and occasional safe house manager in the 50s. These are book-ended by brief scenes from 1981.

This is a spy story replete with layers of intrigue and confusion. The twist is that it is told from the perspective of a young and intelligent woman who doesn’t necessarily know what she is getting into and just wants to do something interesting with her life. We watch her thoughts and actions in one time period and understand the ramifications and results in another. The inspiration for the story came from the author’s perusal of recently opened archives of WWII transcripts including information about the “Right Club,” comprised of Nazi sympathizers living in Britain.

To be honest, the action is less pronounced than might be expected — probably a little more true to life than your typical spy stories. The writing is very strong, but I found it hard to care about any of the characters, the protagonist included. On the plus side, it felt quite realistic and Atkinson’s utter prowess with language makes it difficult to put down. Some favorite lines:

“The war had been a hole that had receded and now here it was lapping around her ankles again. She sighed and chastised herself for a sub-standard metaphor.”

“But isn’t artistic endeavor the final refuge of the uncommitted?”

“The war was a clumsily stitched wound and it felt as if it was being opened by something.”

“ ‘You have his curls,’ her mother said. It seems a poor legacy.”

“Radio allowed for a degree of slippage in the gender department.”

“ ‘Crumhorns and flageolets, I expect. A sackbut or two as well,’ Juliet said, pulling these words off an obscure shelf in her memory.”

I also liked the opening quote of Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”


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