I finished Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, last night, and I’m trying to work out why I like her work so much. I only discovered her work with Life After Life, and that and its sequel, A God in Ruins, feel as though they belong to one side of the trajectory of her career. But that’s not really the case, because the Jackson Brodie detective novels like Case Histories don’t really feel as though they belong on the same trajectory as, for instance, Human Croquet. Except they do, and the sudden shift into spy fiction with Transcription is part of the same pattern. It’s not a case of trying to make every novel different from the last; there were, after all, four Jackson Brodie novels, and Life After Life and A God in Ruins form an intricate and intriguing dyptych. I think the thing that makes her work so interesting is that she goes where the story takes her, but where it takes her isn’t all about story.
Let me try and explain. Case Histories is a crime story, how could it not be with a detective as the central character; multiple crimes form the thread from which the novel depends, and the progression towards a resolution of these stories is what keeps us turning the page. But crime and detection are not central to the novel, but rather stands at an oblique angle to the intersecting lives and fascinating characters caught in the drama. It is a novel that steps willingly and knowingly into genre (she does not cheat, she does not belittle, she does not treat genre disdainfully as something that she doesn’t have to treat seriously), but it is also a novel of character, a novel of social satire, a mainstream novel. Both the genre story and the mainstream perspectives are complex and satisfying, but in different ways; it treads the divide between the two with a confidence that gives full measure to both.
Life After Life is not science fiction. But the demands of story mean that she can only tell the story using a science fictional device, which she does with the same confidence and seriousness that she treated the crime genre in the Jackson Brodie novels.
And the same is true of Transcription. It is a spy story, that is the line upon which everything in the novel hangs. And it gives full worth as a spy story, with secrets and betrayals, and half-understood hints, and a twist at the end that I did not see coming but that is perfectly in keeping with everything we have read to that point. And yet our attention is firmly upon characters who are deftly and vividly drawn, and glimpses of life in wartime London and at the postwar BBC that are startlingly effective. You read for the spy story and get social realism as a bonus, or you read for the social realism and get a gripping spy story to hold your attention. It is the way her fiction operates as both genre and non-genre writing at exactly the same time that is the central joy in reading her work.
There’s a lovely moment in Kate Atkinson’s “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel which illustrates what I mean about going where the story takes her. She describes how the idea for the novel was generated by the release of MI5 documents to the National Archives concerning a World War II agent known as “Jack King” who posed as a Gestapo agent in order to infiltrate fascist circles in Britain and as a result neutralized virtually every fifth columnist in the country. “Jack King” was later revealed to be an apparently insignificant bank clerk called Eric Roberts. That, and Atkinson’s fellow feeling for the “girl” who would have typed out the hundreds of pages of transcriptions of Jack King’s meetings with would-be German spies, was the core of the novel. Then Atkinson adds: “I hadn’t intended to have the BBC in the novel at all, least of all Schools Broadcasting, but … somehow the ‘two great monoliths’ seemed to belong shoulder to shoulder on the same pages.” (331-32) This actually signals a profound shift in the story, because the incidents that drive the novel are all within the wartime MI5; but the focus and the revelations are all within the postwar BBC.
Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, a seemingly naive young woman who is recruited by the security services at the start of World War II and finds herself transcribing the meetings with unknowing fascist sympathizers conducted by “Godfrey Toby”. She has a crush on her immediate boss, Perry Gibbons, without realizing he’s homosexual; she has doubts about “Mr Toby” when she sees him meeting with a sinister-looking figure; she is given the additional task of infiltrating a fascist group around a socialite called Mrs Scaife which results in mass arrests but causes the death of Mrs Scaife’s maid who had helped her; and the machiavellian figure at the top of the MI5 section she works for proves to be a Kim Philby figure. After the war, she is working as a producer for BBC Schools Programmes when she runs into Mr Toby again, only he doesn’t seem to recognize her. Then she starts to receive threatening letters, MI5 puts pressure on her to use her flat as a safe house, and the Czech refugee she houses goes missing. And as things start to fall apart, her wartime experiences are suddenly cast in a very different light.
Okay, that’s enough. There’s a good story here whose twists and turns deserve to be unravelled at the slow pace Kate Atkinson employs. Besides, the real pleasure of the novel stems from the rich array of characters whose lives intersect with Juliet’s, both in MI5 and at the BBC.