Kate Atkinson’s WWII Spy Novel Lies To The Reader

Fool Me Once, Shame On You

Author Kate Atkinson is on a roll, having reached a new peak of critical and popular success with her “let’s try that again” novel Life After Life. Atkinson’s flight of fancy involved a heroine who lived her life over and over again, first dying as a newborn baby, but then being born again and surviving. She later heads down different paths in life after life, revealing destiny, or the lack thereof, for all of us. Now, in the WW II spy novel Transcription, Atkinson gives us a heroine who tries on new lives the way others try on a new frock.

She’s Juliet Armstrong, an orphan in her teens chosen to be a typist at MI5 during the war. Juliet first works in a flat next to a meeting place for fascist sympathizers. A double agent is pretending to be a Gestapo contact, thus luring in would-be traitors so Juliet can type up their incriminating conversations. Soon, she’s in the field, cozying up to a wealthy Nazi-lover and discovering a lovely gift for lying.

Juliet is a treat and Atkinson’s novel is at its best when squarely inside her mind.  Whether she’s an unwitting beard to a gay co-worker (wondering plaintively why he doesn’t shag her already) or simply commenting on the world around her, Juliet’s witty mental asides are hilarious and spot on. They bring to life this seemingly quiet cog in the war machinery.

But just as veterans of war often say life was never that exciting again, Transcription fades quite a bit when the fighting ends. Juliet washes up on the beaches of the BBC, working on dull radio plays intended to educate school children. Office intrigue simply can’t compete with foreign intrigue.

When Juliet is asked at times to serve as a safe house for MI5, the pulse does not pound; it feels more like a tiresome burden than a chance to live again the excitement of war. Worse, the novel plays very unfair when we discover–much too late–most everyone in the book has crucial information that we do not. An unreliable narrator is one thing. An unreliable author is quite a different pot of tea.


(Little Brown & Co., Sept. 25, 2018)

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Michael Giltz

Michael Giltz is a freelance writer based in New York City covering all areas of entertainment, politics, sports and more. He has written extensively for the New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Magazine, The Advocate, Out, Huffington Post, Premiere Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, BookFilter, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. He co-hosts the long-running podcast Showbiz Sandbox.

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