For the past 50 years, all spy novels have been written under the shadow cast by John le Carré. By zeroing in on the inherent duplicity of the trade and the murky politics of the Cold War, he kicked the form into a higher gear than anything offered by the camp wish fulfillment of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series or the straightforward heroics of Erskine Childers and John Buchan. Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, resembles le Carré’s fiction—despite being set during and just after the supposedly less-ambiguous conflict of the Second World War—as it feels its way through the seemingly impenetrable moral tangles of espionage. Like le Carré’s spies, Atkinson’s main character, Juliet Armstrong—depicted at age 18, when she first goes to work for MI5, and a decade later, producing innocuous children’s programming for the BBC after the war—has come to suspect that “it wasn’t a matter of sides at all, it was probably much more complicated than that.” The novel flips back-and-forth across this 10-year divide. Its central mystery is how the Juliet of 1940, a naïve orphan, became her weary and increasingly paranoid postwar self.
Not that Juliet’s paranoia is unjustified. By 1950, not only has she received an anonymous note reading, “You will pay for what you did,” she’s become the kind of person who feels unsure which of several unforgivable acts the writer of the note refers to. The note is what prompts her to cast her memory back over the war, specifically the early years, before the Blitz and the deaths of so many friends and lovers. Through an intricately plotted excavation of Juliet’s secrets, Atkinson reveals just how perplexing it can be to choose a side.
In an afterword laying out the historical roots of Transcription, Atkinson describes how she became interested in an MI5 operation that spied on fascist sympathizers in England. A man posing as a secret Gestapo agent invited these would-be “fifth column” assets to a flat in London, where they passed on information they thought would be helpful to the German war effort. The flat was bugged, the traitors monitored, and the information harmlessly diverted, although just how essential this operation was to winning the war is one of the questions Atkinson’s novel asks. Recently, transcriptions of the conversations were released to Britain’s National Archives. Atkinson, who read them, was initially intrigued by the idea of the fake Gestapo agent, whose cover identity as a mild-mannered bank clerk fooled nearly everyone. Soon, however, she became more interested in the nameless person, almost certain a “girl” (as the men in charge referred to all young female clerical staff), who transcribed the recordings. According to Atkinson, glimmers of the transcriber’s personality peep out occasionally here and there in the documents. Juliet is how Atkinson imagines that girl.
This is where the similarities to le Carré’s fiction stop. If Transcription were a le Carré novel, the main character would be the fake Gestapo agent, Godfrey Toby, a reputed mastermind who cuts a disappointingly “unassuming, Pooterish figure” in the young Juliet’s eyes. He’s very like le Carré’s best-known character, the gray, middle-aged, middle-class spymaster George Smiley. Another difference is that Transcription, while sometimes fraught and tense, is more often shrewdly funny. It’s told from the perspective of a character who might as well be Smiley’s secretary, or a Miss Moneypenny who never met a man remotely like James Bond and ended up getting into the game herself. Still, no matter what feats of deception her country demands of Juliet, tea must be made, and it’s always the “girl” who must make it—and clean up afterward.
“It would be menials who would win this war,” Juliet tells herself just before she’s plucked from the rank-and-file MI5 office staff stationed in the old Wormwood Scrubs prison at the beginning of the war. The rest of the girls there are mostly “debs” and “useless”: “A few of them brought picnic hampers and ate lunch on the grass as if they were at Henley Regatta.” For Juliet, in these early days, the war takes a back seat to concerns like meeting a new best friend (a Mitford-esque duke’s daughter), going out to nightclubs, the camaraderie and tedium of a first job, and nursing a crush on the boss who everyone else (including the reader) can plainly see is gay. Juliet never wanted to join MI5 in the first place, preferring the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army. But somehow she ends up recruited after a peculiarly antagonistic interview with one of the novel’s several male puppet masters. She can’t imagine why she’s chosen, but to the reader, this too is obvious: Juliet is a gifted, instinctual liar. She lies for no significant reason beyond the fact that she doesn’t like the man questioning her. She tells her interlocutor that she loves Rembrandt, “placing her hand on her heart in a gesture of devotion,” when in fact she doesn’t see “what was so wonderful about an ugly old man who kept painting himself all the time.”
The concealed sharp edges of Juliet’s personality, evident even at this tender age, will delight Atkinson fans. This novelist specializes in female characters whose running internal monologues take witty, no-nonsense shots at the selfish and thoughtless. A good third of the way through the book, I finally realized which very un–le Carré–like author this reminded me of: the brilliant midcentury British comic novelist Barbara Pym. Pym’s following may be smaller than le Carré’s, but it is certainly no less ardent. Pym wrote about women in cardigans who drink a lot of tea, have unsatisfactory romances with self-involved men, and organize church “jumble sales.” Transcription is the spy novel she might have written if she ever attempted the genre. Juliet shares with Pym’s rueful heroines an unspoken cascade of association and rumination, playing out beneath her placid, docile surface. She notices everything, judges most of it, says little, and is listened to even less. In this sense, Atkinson suggests, all women are spies; they appear to be what others need them to be and contain a secret world all their own. At times, Juliet’s labyrinthine pondering wears her out and becomes a joke itself. In one very Pym-like passage, Juliet learns that a defector has been given the code name “flamingo”:
Did people hunt flamingos? It was a bird Juliet had never given any thought to and now it seemed to be perched on every corner. No, not perched—they didn’t perch, did they? Too big, probably. And the legs would be too long. You needed short legs for perching or you would be unbalanced, especially if you had a predilection for standing on one leg. Juliet sighed and wondered if one day she would think herself to death.
Much of the humor in both Transcription and Pym’s novels has to do with the ironic contrast between what people, particularly women, are thinking and what good manners permit them to say, the vast, unreachable interior life that goes on behind unprepossessing appearances. Like Toby, who remains a puzzle to the end of the novel and whose cane hides a dagger, Juliet herself springs a few surprises on the reader. Meanwhile, her skepticism extends to the very story she’s in. She keeps hoping she’ll find her way into a Buchan or Childers narrative, but just when the action picks up, reality disappoints and ultimately dismays her.
Throughout much of the beginning of Transcription, Atkinson runs around her spy novel, seeking out the genre’s inflated pockets of self-importance and poking them with her sharp little needle. It’s a bit of a farce. The fifth columnists are little more than impotent, carping, vindictive anti-Semites who relish finking on their neighbors. When a male higher-up theatrically tosses a stack of papers on a desk, scattering them, Juliet crossly thinks, “I’m going to have to re-collate all those later.” Gradually both the war and the spy game get serious: “Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now.” MI5 gives her a real act of espionage to do, complete with a bogus identity and the sort of adventures that involve climbing down the ivy growing on the walls of a stately home. The cost of all these escapades, however, soon grows painfully clear.
In le Carré’s novels, people who long ago became spies out of patriotism or some other strain of idealism find themselves hopelessly compromised by the expediencies of the work itself. An action that meets an immediate need can disseminate out into the world with unpredictable ramifications. This is what Pym herself suggested by setting her novels in a shared universe in which the main characters from one book appear as minor figures in others, brushing against and reshaping each other’s lives. As Juliet puts it, “Everything was interconnected, a great web that stretched across time and history.”
Once you understand this, how can you not ask yourself if it makes any sense to sacrifice individuals in order to protect the sanctity of the rights of the individual from an enemy who holds them in contempt? Is it possible to get through any war, any job, any life, no matter how small, with a clean conscience? Transcription suggests not. Even the simple act of writing down someone else’s words has consequences, and leaves traces whose influence no one can foretell.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson. Little, Brown.
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