Kate Atkinson’s fluid identity as a novelist has long marked her out as one of Britain’s most interesting – and often underrated – writers. From the examination of transgenerational trauma in her Whitbread-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to the exceptional, history-warping Life After Life and its sort-of-sequel A God in Ruins, she has cast an eye over the country’s past lives and deconstructed their grand narratives by focusing on the minutiae and confusion of individuals. In an Atkinson novel, the playful always stands shoulder to shoulder with the painful, the grandiose with the grubby; never are we to believe that the story told is the only story, nor fundamentally reliable.
Her mid-career reinvention as a crime writer in the Jackson Brodie novels was not so much a departure as a meander up an unexpectedly vivid and populous side street; a version of the Mr Benn story, in which adventures and mysteries thickened gratifyingly before protagonists and readers were deposited back in reality, subtly but unmistakably altered. And perhaps the most telling thing was how these two Atkinsons blended into one another, their differences in setting and style simply different routes to a similar end.
In Transcription, Atkinson braids all three strands together, family, war and caperish malfeasance boxing and coxing to create a thoroughly duplicitous narrative. It begins with a street accident and then abruptly spins back in time to present us with that accident’s victim, fully upright and unharmed, making her way to Broadcasting House and her job as a schools producer (“A visit to the blacksmith in his smithy” and “Out and about with a shepherd” are two suggestions to surface at an ideas meeting. Neither, it is strongly suggested, will see the light of day).
It is 1950, but Juliet Armstrong is suddenly catapulted back a decade when she sees and hails a familiar figure – “the bland, owlish face, the tortoiseshell spectacles, the old trilby” – only for him to deny all knowledge of her. Juliet is sure that she’s correctly recognised him as Godfrey Toby, aka John Hazeldine, because in 1940, she sat in a small flat in Dolphin Square transcribing the conversations that he had with would-be fifth columnists in an adjacent apartment.
Edith, Dolly, Victor, Trude and Betty all believe Toby to be a Gestapo officer, conscientiously passing their apparently underwhelming snippets of information – “The pubs in Portsmouth are full of sailors”; “Did I tell you about that Jew that came round? He said he could get me anything in the way of underthings” – back to Berlin. But their questionable intelligence is, in fact, being recorded by a clever chap called Cyril and delivered straight back to MI5 – once, that is, Juliet has typed it up.
Anybody who has ever had to transcribe a recording will groan with fellow feeling at the obstacles Juliet has to overcome. Heavy colds, barking dogs, cigarette and biscuit breaks and, perhaps worst of all, mumblers, complicate her task and make it more vulnerable to the transcribers’ guilty secret: guesswork. But guesswork is one thing when you’re mistaking an interviewee’s favourite biscuit, and quite another when you’re attempting to foil the Führer.
Atkinson’s depiction of espionage and counter-espionage on the Home Front is nimble and convincing: she captures the boredom and mundanity as well as the hidden hierarchies that see an orphaned, teenage Juliet plucked from clerical duties in the requisitioned Wormwood Scrubs to, eventually, infiltrate the circles of the most aristocratic and powerful of Nazi sympathisers. But she is also adept at advertising its inauthenticity.
The raciest and most improbable of scenes and characters stud the story: Juliet shins down a Virginia creeper to avoid discovery in the home of a well-to-do fascist; a mysterious man with an astrakhan collar appears and disappears at crucial moments; bodies are despatched to secret graves in the middle of the night.
If Life After Life took as its foundation myth the large and settled family, its members flung into a fractured world but nonetheless linked to one another, Transcription flourishes in isolation. Everyone is alone: Juliet herself; her immediate superior, Peregrine Gibbons, about whom she entertains romantic thoughts despite the mounting evidence of his necessarily clandestine homosexuality; the spies who are sent out into the cold; the BBC spinsters who die alone in hospital beds or turn to drink and end up locked in cupboards (this last is an incidental, but very funny, scene).
One episode, set in 1950, pictures Juliet as the reluctant proprietor of an occasional safe house for MI5; briskly activated, she duly sets off to Harrods’ Food Halls to provide postwar riches for her overnight guest: “bread, butter, ham sliced off the bone while she watched, a thick wedge of Cheddar, a half-dozen eggs, a jar of pickled onions and a bunch of grapes”. But “Mr Smith” is so traumatised that he cannot eat, and sleeps in his clothes, clutching the handle of his suitcase. The reader, none the wiser as to who he is or what part he might play in the story, can only wonder what peacetime the war has delivered.
The deceptions, switchbacks and limitations of tradecraft are manna to novelists predisposed to narratives that are as much hole as doughnut, and in Transcription, Atkinson clearly amuses herself with the sheer implausibility and theatricality of the world she describes. But there is an immensely serious book here, too, waiting in the wings to reveal itself on the very last pages; a book that asks us to question the entertainment we’ve just gobbled up, and to reckon with what lies beneath it. For every Mr Toby, clipping his way through the London streets with his silver-topped cane, there is also a Mr Moretti, a café-owner interned as an enemy alien and later lost at sea, or a Dodds, a lady’s maid caught up in the power-play of her employer, exiled forever from what the novel’s patriotic spooks like to call “This England”. Their stories, brushed aside in the thrill of the moment, return to peep from the margins.
Doubleday, 337pp, £20
This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left