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.
TRANSCRIPTION, By Kate Atkinson
(Little Brown & Co., Sept. 25, 2018)