Reviewed by Harriet
‘Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Miss Armstrong. You have an unfortunate tendency to do that. Iris isn’t real’. But how can she not be? Juliet thought. She’s me.
Kate Atkinson’s last two novels, Life after Life and A God in Ruins (reviewed here) were both set in the years during and after the Second World War. Here we are back in the same period again, but this time plunged into the murky world of spies.
The novel begins in 1950. Juliet Armstrong, a radio producer, is walking in a London park when she spots a man she used to work for in the war, who pretends not to recognise her. This takes her mind back to those days, the story of which starts in 1940. Juliet is eighteen and has just lost the mother, who she had left school to look after in her last illness. She’s feeling at a loss and decides on war work to fill the gap. She applies to join the Women’s Armed Forces but ends up in the typing pool of MI5, from which she is soon wrenched; a new job awaits her in what she’s told is an important surveillance operation. An MI5 operative named Godfrey Toby is posing as a Gestapo agent. He has gathered a small group of Fifth Columnists, who hold regular meetings in a flat in London’s Dolphin Square to share information that can be passed on to Germany. MI5 has set up an operations room in the flat next door, with microphones concealed in the adjoining walls: their treasonable conversations are recorded on wax discs, and Juliet’s job is to transcribe them. Her small team is led by suave, handsome Peregrine Gibbons – Perry – who soon singles Juliet out for a new and more challenging job. Though she will continue with the transcription, she is now given a new identity, that of Iris Carter-Jenkins, a supposed Nazi sympathiser. Iris must make friends with a wealthy widow, Mrs Scaife, who hosts small tea parties for the purpose of discussing their mutual hatred of the Jews. Juliet – or Iris – is soon invited to these and is a great success. There’s a nasty moment when she is scouting the house for a copy of the notorious Red Book, which contains lists of British Nazi sympathisers and hears Mrs Scaithe returning unexpectedly. She’s forced to escape through an upstairs window and has to remind her self that ‘Iris was the plucky sort’. She has an imaginary fiance named Ian who is in the Navy, on board HMS Hook, and becomes quite caught up in anxieties about his welfare.
Juliet’s life away from work and subterfuge is fairly uneventful. She develops something of a crush on handsome Perry and is excited when he invites her for a day out in the country – she’s curious about sex and hopes she may be seduced. But the day out proves to consist of long and chilly hours spent sitting on a cold tarpaulin, on the watch for otters, without so much as a sandwich or a thermos of coffee to stave off hunger pangs. Some time later, Perry rather formally proposes to her and she spends some extremely odd and embarrassing nights lying by his side, wondering why he doesn’t lay a finger on her. It’s clear to the reader, though not to the innocent Juliet, that Perry is gay – he enjoys evenings in the ‘Pink Sink’, the ‘Ritz below the Ritz’ – an identity he must conceal quite as assiduously as Juliet must hide behind Iris or Toby behind his German persona. Juliet’s obvious affinity for assumed personas is something she herself is interested in:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
Time in the novel moves on, and we are back with Juliet in 1950, now working for the BBC at Broadcasting House. She is in the schools department, producing radio plays to introduce children to the history of their country. She’s still allied to MI5, though, and at one point takes in a Polish refugee scientist, giving him some food and a bed for the night before he is taken on to a final destination where it is hoped he will share his secrets with the British. She’s curious about Toby, who cut her dead in the park, and snoops around his home address trying to discover what he’s actually up to, but meets with a curious web of subterfuge.
Transcription is a true spy story, with all the expected accoutrements you could possibly wish for – invisible ink, messages left in copies of the Times on park benches, mysterious men in astrakhan collared coats – but as the novel’s epigraph by Winston Churchill, ‘In wartime, truth is so precious, that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies’ suggests, it’s also a meditation on identity, which asks us to consider what we really know about the people we work for and live with. Juliet herself has some surprises for us towards the end of the novel. She’s a highly involving character, not one you will exactly fall in love with, though her intelligence, her quiet scepticism and wry humour make you want to know more about her. One thing we do know is when she dies – aged 60, recently returned from many years living in Italy, she is knocked down by a car in Wigmore Street. She’s probably lived long enough, she thinks.
This is one of those rare novels you feel like starting again the minute you’ve finished. Highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Kate Atkinson, Transcription (Doubleday, 2018) ISBN 978-0857525888, hardback, 382 pages.
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