A novel of World War II espionage with an unlikely heroine
By Kate Atkinson
343 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.
All novels are spy novels, Ian McEwan once observed, and it’s a reasonable claim: Fiction nearly always relies on a clever observer to pry inside the minds and lives of its characters, to lay bare for the reader their deep motivations and intimate secrets. No wonder spies, like detectives, seem inherently literary figures, whether they’re real, invented or — as with the spies in Kate Atkinson’s intriguing new novel — a bit of both.
The spying in “Transcription” happens under the aegis of MI5, the British intelligence agency whose elite affiliations and Cold War defections are well known. Atkinson plumbs a more obscure realm of MI5’s activity: its infiltration, during World War II, of the so-called fifth column, a network of British Nazi sympathizers who revered Hitler and eagerly awaited Germany’s conquest of Europe. In an afterword, Atkinson explains that the sort of covert operation she has dramatized actually did take place. A British MI5 agent, posing as an agent of Nazi Germany, hosted regular meetings for fifth-column members in a London apartment wired with microphones. In an adjacent apartment, MI5 agents recorded their conversations.
Into these dramatic environs Atkinson injects one Juliet Armstrong, the “girl” (as in: “I need a girl”) selected by MI5 to transcribe the secretly recorded dialogues. “Transcription” visits Juliet at three periods of her life, which are nested like Russian dolls. At the outset, “just 60 years old,” she is struck by a car and knows she will die; two pages later, we meet her at 28, working for the BBC in 1950, a time when London (and virtually everyone in it) was still hobbled by the war. Fans of “Life After Life,” Atkinson’s 2013 masterpiece, will recognize the artful pathos with which she renders the war’s cratering effect on Londoners. But what interests Atkinson here is less the war’s aftermath than its simmering persistence. On the street during her lunch break, Juliet spots a man, Godfrey Toby, with whom she worked very closely back in 1940. But when she rushes up to greet him, he denies his identity, insisting she has mistaken him for someone else and leaving her shaken.
The novel then turns to 1940, when Juliet — 18, orphaned, given to sassy parenthetical observations — first joins MI5. Here the narrative really takes off; watching through Juliet’s irreverent eyes as MI5 recruits upper-class “girls” for possible spy work is fascinating and deliciously comic. “Pa’s a duke,” one drawls when Juliet notices a gold crest on her cigarettes. The amusement continues when Juliet is chosen (“plucked,” as the duke’s daughter puts it) to transcribe the fifth columnists’ recorded conversations from the apartment next door. Atkinson marvelously captures the sheltered, insouciant Juliet’s longing for experience: “Her éducation sexuelle (it was easier to think of it as something French) was woefully riddled with lacunae. They had drawn diagrams to show the domestic plumbing system at school in Housecraft. It was a pointless subject — how to lay a tea tray, what to feed an invalid, what to look for when buying meat (beef should be ‘marbled with fat’). How much more useful if they had taught you about sex.” Her wish for erotic transport settles on her boss, the enigmatic Peregrine Gibbons, who eventually invites her on a promising excursion to the country. The ensuing hilarity is best captured in the following couplet:
“‘Otters,’ he whispered, spreading a tarpaulin sheet on the riverbank.
“‘Sir?’ Had he said otters? Not seduction then.”
Atkinson’s use of comedy in the first half of the novel is unexpected and inspired; even the Dada-esque chunks of Juliet’s transcription are animated by our awareness of her exasperated confusion as she types them. When she is assigned her own false identity and charged with befriending a middle-aged woman who is a Nazi sympathizer, the humor tilts toward the madcap; Juliet is, at best, a sloppy and capricious spy. When a dead body turns up, it would appear to signal a change of tone, and the 1940 action stops just short, we’re told, of “the horror of what happened next.”
When “Transcription” shifts back to 1950, we find Juliet still partly in the employ of MI5; she has agreed — apparently not for the first time — to let her apartment be used as a safe house, in this case an overnight stay for a refugee scientist fleeing the Communist bloc. The resulting debacle is one of several new plots Atkinson sets in motion halfway through the novel: a snafu at the BBC program Juliet works on; an anonymous threat delivered to her at work; an odd-looking man and woman who seem to be following her; her own attempts to locate Godfrey Toby, whose path she crossed at the start; and her decision to track down the remaining fifth columnists whose conversations she transcribed to see whether any might be plotting revenge. The overburdened narrative loses focus, and the undisclosed “horror” from 1940 asserts itself as a leitmotif in the form of ominous dialogue snippets — “We’ve had rather a shock” and “We must finish her off,” among others — that float through the text. As a strategy for sustaining tension, this is risky; the horrifying event, when at last divulged, is almost inevitably less horrifying than the reader has come to expect.
The deeper problem in the last half of “Transcription” lies with Juliet. Beguiling as an excitable ingénue, she becomes cipherlike as the book progresses. Her actions seem unintelligible at times, her plucky asides almost perversely frivolous in the face of serious events. Asked to clean up after a scene of bloody violence she herself has caused, Juliet reflects: “Why was it that the females of the species were always the ones left to tidy up. … I expect Jesus came out of the tomb … and said to his mother, ‘Can you tidy it up a bit back there?’” Her inner life feels shrouded; without it, the novel lacks an emotional core that might have unified its ungainly plot. When asked whether she ever despairs, Juliet’s instinct is to equivocate. “Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often,” she thinks. “No, not at all,” she replies aloud. What’s the truth? The reader has no more idea than her interlocutor.
Atkinson is keeping a secret about Juliet, and its revelation comes as a major surprise toward the end of the novel. Juliet’s opacity may be part of Atkinson’s strategy. Spies, after all, are notoriously hard to read — it’s part of the job description. “The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they’re on,” Juliet is advised by her boss. But a good agent can prove a frustrating protagonist; a spy may require a second spy to make her spill her secrets.