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14 january 2019

I have been a fan of Kate Atkinson since reading (several years late) her 2004 novel Case Histories. Though I didn't write about them here, I have recently been reading the rest of Atkinson's Jackson Brodie crime-novel series, which is terrific – One Good Turn (2006) being the best of the lot, and one of the better novels I have read from this century, period. (A new Jackson Brodie called Big Sky is due in the summer of 2019.)

Yet I didn't like Life after Life (2013), Atkinson's breakthrough into the top ranks of both critical and popular success. That book's central device – intensive sideshadowing that imagines a single life truncated and restarted multiple times, to depict the deep texture of lives of all lengths led during a given era – is ingenious and skillful; I just found the actual content of many of the lives in the novel boring. So I didn't even read the sequel A God in Ruins (2015). And I might not have read Transcription except there it was on the shelf and I had a neat three days before a long trip, with no other book in my queue.

Transcription is more straightforward than Life after Life or the Jackson Brodies. There are three timelines, but each proceeds in linear fashion. We follow Juliet Armstrong in 1940, 1950, and 1981 (so we know from the start that she survives that long, at least). The 1981 narrative is just a brief framing device; the story is really told in two parallel parts (1940 and '50), and it doesn't jump back and forth very often. But when it jumps, there's an opportunity for a cliffhanger of sorts, so (e.g.) we're back in 1950 wondering what happened ten years previously.

The 1940 story is an espionage tale with echoes of Pierre Boulle, John Le Carré, and Graham Greene (both Greene's tough "entertainments" like The Ministry of Fear and absurder entries like Our Man in Havana). The 1950 story is about the BBC, and, as Atkinson mentions in an afterword, indebted to Penelope Fitzgerald's novel Human Voices. Juliet has gone from cloak-and-dagger at MI5 to producing wholesome radio programs, and asks herself at one point which is better: "to be glamorously decadent, to ingest excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol and die a horrible but heroic death at a relatively young age, or to end up in Schools Broadcasting at the BBC?" (262)

Like all of Kate Atkinson's focal characters, Juliet Armstrong is likeable – despite the fact that you gather early on that Juliet is an unreliable reflector. (The perspective of all the stories is so narrowly hers that she might as well be the narrator, but Atkinson keeps the telling in the third person.) You want Juliet to succeed, but more than that, you want her to be quicker on the uptake at times, luckier in love, just plain happier. She is resourceful and no better than she ought to be – traits that Juliet shares with Jackson Brodie himself and the other focal characters in his novels.

"Transcription" because that is one of Juliet's jobs with MI5. A deep-seated mole inside the English fifth column, with the unlikely name of Godfrey Toby, entices Nazi sympathizers to hugger-mugger meetings in a London flat. Next door, a team of spies records the conversations, and Juliet types them up. As you might imagine, the transcriptions are as much art as life. Nor do they constitute Juliet's only duties with MI5; she is also given a second identity and sent to infiltrate some far-right circles herself.

In 1950, meanwhile, the older-and-wiser Juliet wonders if the chickens from her wartime adventures are coming home to roost. It's all good fun in the straightforward sense, but it's also a deeply literate, self-referential novel with many postmodern implications (what does it mean to "transcribe" life in realistic fiction?) Transcription never drags for long, and has moments of weird incongruous action. It's a good read, and the more thoughtful the more you reflect back on it.

Atkinson, Kate. Transcription. New York: Little, 2018.