Posts Tagged ‘Century of Books – 2022’

Transcription by Kate Atkinson ~ 2018. This edition: Back Bay Books, 2019. Paperback. 339 pages.

I missed out on this novel when it was published a few years ago, being instead focused on the pending release of the fifth Jackson Brodie installment, Big Sky, which I happily received as one of my Christmas 2019 books. (Remember December of 2019, with just the faintest hints of a world-changing event? “A new virus has appeared in China…”)

Anyway, Big Sky had my full attention, and Transcription slipped past unnoticed until this Christmas season, when my daughter and I were on a rare “non-essential” visit to the bookshop and she noticed it on a remainder stack and said, “Hey, I don’t think you have this one, do you?” So it came home with us and I have saved it until now, and isn’t it grand to start the new year off with a new book by a favourite writer?

What can one say about a Kate Atkinson novel which many others haven’t already said, and frequently much more eloquently? The answer is “not much”, so I will keep this relatively brief.

London, 1940. Recently orphaned nineteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is scouted by MI5 and soon finds herself “plucked” (“…More pigeon perhaps than rose…”) from the ranks of minor clerical workers to act as a transcriptionist on a special project, typing out the secretly recorded conversations of a group of British fascist sympathizers. Things go a bit sideways, as they are wont to do in Atkinson inventions, and Juliet – well – Juliet has adventures.

Flash forward to the 1950s, with Juliet now working at the BBC, and a face from the past shows up with complicating consequences. (Is anybody ever really what they seem?)

Trust Kate Atkinson to spin a complex and frequently perplexing tale. This one comes complete with an impressive research bibliography and author’s note.

Frequently funny, in a laconically wry way, and I had one laugh out loud moment early on, when BBC announcer Juliet is thinking of awkward moments when on air.

The cat, a ginger one – they were the worst type of cat, in Juliet’s opinion – had jumped up on the desk and bitten her – quite sharply, so that she couldn’t help but give a little yelp of pain. It then proceeded to roll around on the desk before rubbing its face on the microphone and purring so loudly that anyone listening must have thought there was a panther loose in the studio, one that was very pleased with itself for having killed a woman.

Digression. Could one not create as a quietly diverting side project a felinophile-bibliophile’s trivia file, a collection of brief yet memorable cat references in literature? For example, Grumpy in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington.

No more cats appear in Transcription, though there are two dogs, one with a bit part, one with much more than that. (Spoiler alert for the animal lovers going “Aw, so sweet…”: the dogs do not get happy endings.) Also memorable plot-wise are a small Mauser revolver, a string of pearls, a unique handbag and a Sèvres teacup.

My rating: 8/10

The Sources afterword has some tempting titles, perhaps most intriguing Human Voices (1980) by Penelope Fitzgerald, One Girl’s War (1945) by Joan Miller, and Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes, 1939-1945 (1971).

 

 

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