Transcription takes place in two different times in the main character’s life in London. After a small preface in 1981, the Story picks up in 1950 at the start of the Cold War where we meet Juliet, the main character, who works at the BBC as a producer of a radio show for children.
She bumps into someone she had known 10 years earlier who pretends he doesn’t know her, and the story then flashes back to 1940, where we see an 18 year old Juliet working as a transcriptionist for MI5.
The story is based loosely on real espionage activities that took place in World War II in London which only recently were declassified.
Juliet is recruited, as if she had a choice, but she doesn’t have too many life options in 1940. Her mother has just passed away and while they’d been relatively poor, she’d been able to get an education through scholarship.
With the war starting and being newly orphaned, when she receives a summons to the Security Service on official looking notepaper, she assumes she should obey it. An MI5 Agent interviews her for a job. Soon after her service starts, she’s tapped for the transcriptionist duty.
The covert operation is small and takes place in a London apartment building. She’s joined by a recording engineer, their boss who leads the operation, and the main agent, an Englishman posing as a German sympathizer interviewing “members of the fifth column.” These are Britons who are supporters of the enemy, in this case Fascist sympathizers hoping to help overthrow Britain when Germany invades.
The British agent poses as a Gestapo agent and the sympathizers visit him in the evenings sharing secrets and information they think he is passing on to Germany. The meetings are recorded, and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the recordings the following day. The transcriptions are all filed away for some unforeseen future use.
The story also follows related espionage operations that Juliet is part of to uncover members of “the Right Club,” a group of British officials who were also fascist sympathizers. Then it jumps ahead to Juliet in 1950, still dogged by some of the same people, even though she’s no longer officially in the Service.
But one can never really leave, apparently. It seems someone is after her and Juliet decides to track down certain key people from her war experiences to find out who might be dogging her before they, whoever they are, catch up with her.
One of Atkinson’s specialties is her rich, multifaceted characterization. The core group of characters in the covert operation are likable and clearly drawn. Even many of the sympathizers come alive on the page, despite some of them only appearing in Juliet’s transcriptions.
Excerpts of the transcriptions appear in the book. (And are also loosely based on real transcriptions of a similar real life operation.)
I especially like how Atkinson swiftly portrays the many female characters. They are all distinct and vivid.
The male characters felt a little murkier to me. Many of them were superiors and upper level agents, but for Julia, these men were also unknown quantities and her understanding of what they did – and who they are truly in service to – was unclear. So I think this contributes to my own uncertainty about them.
There is a lot of “who is spying on whom” stuff going on. The pacing is tight and switching between 1940 and 1950 is well-done, though I was a little more confused about what was happening in the 1950 portions of the story. Again, though, I think that was by the author’s design.
I am not a reader who actually tries to figure out “who done it” in mysteries. I know all will be revealed in time. I just enjoy the story. I don’t try to crack the mystery before the end. But I do recognize when a writer places a detail early in the story that it might be relevant. It just might not be relevant in the way I’m expecting.
Atkinson is also very good about hiding her mysteries. (She’s the author of the bestselling Jackson Brodie mysteries which have been made into a television series. So yes, she’s good.)
I was also a tad confused about who was “good” and who was “bad.” But again, I think that was part of the point of the story. Who could be trusted? That is exactly the rabbit hole that Juliet eventually falls into. So I did not see the final twist coming and was pleasantly surprised.
I don’t seek out WWII fiction, but I like most of what Atkinson has written and much of her writing does take place in that time period. I like the intelligence and wry observations of the main character. Atkinson has a way with words and a distinct voice, full of little asides and observational callbacks that are almost more entertaining than the plot.
As with most of her books, the main character’s motives are unclear and half hidden from the reader, so you don’t see the full story until the end. But this isn’t a drawback. Having read enough of her books, I know this is pretty much to be expected. And makes reading her books that much more fun.
Typewriter by Peter H from Pixabay / filtered from original