Sunday, December 02, 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

This is brilliant. In 1950, Juliet Armstrong is a BBC radio producer working in Schools (the department always has a capital S). But ten years before, she worked for the government, transcribing recordings of a group of Nazi sympathisers - as well as doing some more active spy work. We cut back and forth between the two roles as a dark secret from her past threatens to return and engulf her...

As a radio producer who still does a lot of transcribing myself, it all felt brilliantly authentic - for all Atkinson says in her afterword that she made so much of it up. In all the best ways, it has the feel of le Carre - with the language of moles and dead-letter drops. Juliet is just one of many in the book to move from MI5 to the BBC without quite leaving the former.
"There was a subtle - and perhaps not so subtle - emphasis in Schools on citizenship. Juliet wondered if it was to counter the instinct towards Communism." (p. 178)
But the spy plot and moral uncertainties are just part of the appeal. The detail of ordinary life is all perfectly conveyed and compelling. When one of Juliet's broadcast programmes includes an actor clearly saying "fuck", it has just as much drama - and awful consequence - as any of the war stuff. 

It's a wrily funny read, one constant theme Juliet's frustrated sex life. Her perspective full of pithy observations as she moves through the large cast of vividly drawn characters, many burdened with tragedy but doing their best to get on.
"How little it takes to make some people happy, Juliet thought. And how much it takes for others." (p. 231)
Amid all this activity, this life, are some deftly placed clues to what's really going on - such as one character's caual thieving - which I didn't think to put together spot until very late. It's especially clever because often we're ahead of Juliet, spotting one character's sexuality before she has to have it explained. Only in the last section do we realise what the book is actually about. In fact, the one jarring moment is when Atkinson acknowledges that with a wink at the reader:
"Come now, quite enough exposition and explanation. We're not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong." (p. 315 - 14 pages from the end)
The final revelation only makes me want to read the whole thing again straight away. It's so deceptively simple, such a pleasure to knock through, so rewarding at the end. A joy.

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