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Transcription by Kate Atkinson - Review

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

I bought this book last week on a rare trip to Waterstones. I happened to be in Wakefield so I popped in. Their Young Adult section is lovely! It's really well stocked and set out in a really appealing way, and has loads of recommendations from staff. So even though it's not very big it makes the most of its space. I was about to buy the new Robin Stevens book when I remembered I had it on pre-order, just in time! I did end up picking up something else in the YA section, but I might get to it soon so I'll wait.

Anyway, I bought this. It was on one of the tables in the fiction section and I picked it up to read the blurb. I read Behind The Scenes At The Museum in about 2006 or 2007 and I really didn't like it. I couldn't get on with the story or the unreliable narrator. Because of that, I've never picked up another of Atkinson's books, even though several of my friends really rate her as an author. However, I liked the sound of this book so I thought I'd give it a chance. My books were on buy one get one half price so I decided it was worth the risk!

Transcription is about a woman called Juliet Armstrong. At the beginning of the book, in 1981, she is dying. She is thinking about her wartime escapades. The narrative moves to 1950, when Juliet, by then working for the BBC, bumps into Godfrey Toby, a man who she knew through the war. He makes out like he doesn't recognise her, and Juliet is baffled.

The narrative turns to 1940. Juliet is eighteen and has just lost her mother. She gets a job working for MI5, after a baffling interview, and is soon moved to a job doing transcription for a covert operation in Pimlico. Godfrey is posing as a Nazi sympathiser and is spying on a number of sympathisers. Safely hidden in the flat next door, Juliet's job is to transcribe everything that the neighbours say. It's a somewhat dull job - these aren't really active fascists, they're just sympathisers.

However, Juliet is recruited variously by men in positions of power above her. One of them wants her to spy on Godfrey and report back on what he's doing. Then she's asked by another to pose as a woman called Iris and get close to the wife of one of Mosley's supporters. She does so.

Back in 1950 Juliet becomes convinced she's being followed. She's convinced it's due to Godfrey's reappearance, so she goes to his house in Finchley to see if the neighbours have any idea what happened to him. She speaks to a few people - but are they all just a bit too rehearsed?

Things happened in 1940 which Juliet helped to cover up and which Juliet even perpetrated herself. She's trying to forget her actions - and sometimes, her inactions - but in 1950 the threat of being followed and perhaps exposed is too much.

I wasn't sure where the action was going to go at any point. The book has plenty of twists and turns but none of them are completely out of nowhere. I loved the back and forth between 1940 and 1950. I liked the wartime setting and how life carried on even though the war is raging in the background. I loved Juliet as a character, I thought she was interesting and complex and also very principled. I also thought that most of the spying was, like, accidentally hilarious? Accidentally farcical, they seemed to be terrible spies. I liked that. It seemed really realistic.

I'm giving this five out of five, I thought it was a brilliant book and I will definitely give Atkinson a chance again!


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