Kate Atkinson’s previous two novels have been outstanding achievements based around the time of World War II. The first, “Life After Life” played with structure in a way in which I (and many others including awards committees) found glorious and the second “A God In Ruins” had a more traditional narrative using characters from its predecessor. Here, the author has kept pretty much within the same time-frame but produced a stand-alone novel.
We meet main character Juliet Armstrong in two concurrent narratives ten years apart. In 1940, as a young typist she is recruited to work for MI5 to produce transcripts of conversations between German sympathisers and in 1950 she finds she hasn’t fully escaped her wartime past whilst working for the BBC as a producer of Schools Radio programmes. Atkinson gets the feel of London in both the war and post-war years perfectly, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is her third consecutive novel set in a period she must have certainly immersed herself in over the last few years.
Juliet is involved in spying so the elements of who is finding out about who and who can be trusted provides a mystery element to the story which drives both narratives. As always, characterisation is very strong and is written with the confidence, authority and playfulness that I have come to expect from this author.
It is a strong novel but I don’t think there is quite enough in the plot for me to consider it an excellent one, so no unprecedented three five stars in a row for Kate Atkinson. I do very much like the juxtaposition of the war-time MI5 and post-war BBC and both work convincingly within the plot. It does provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the secret service during the war, here involved in tasks which seem mundane but which can suddenly turn to the life-threatening and chilling and it is great to have Juliet’s back-room girl’s valuable contribution to all this given some limelight.
Transcription was published by Penguin in September 2018. The paperback version is due in March 2019