Transcription by Kate Atkinson


This novel is set in London, with the plot unspooling in the period leading up to England’s involvement in World War II, and after the war.  Juliet Armstrong, the main character, is hired by MI5, before the age of twenty, as a typist of transcriptions of meetings with Fascist sympathizers, secretly recorded.  So, there is a plot line back in those days that is of the spy-thriller genre, I’d say.  After the war is over we find Juliet working as a producer of children’s programs for BBC radio broadcasting, which provides a second plot line.  Of course, they intersect.  Atkinson does an excellent job of jumping back and forth in time, dropping hints and building up suspense as the pages (or in my case, CD’s, go by.)  Just what is going on?  My spousal unit, who is immersed in the world of detectives and police procedurals, tells me he would have been able to figure it out, but I didn’t.

This novel is written in the third person, and we see everything through Juliet’s eyes.  We hear her every thought.  She is one witty and educated person, so that’s a pleasure.  I most often read fiction that is character-driven, and though Atkinson careful attends to her characters, the plot is the thing in this book.  So it was something a bit different, which isn’t a bad thing since it is well-written.

In an Author’s note at the end of the book, Atkinson says that this story was inspired by records released by MI5, which included transcriptions such as those Juliet types.  She says that the transcriptionist’s personality comes through in them.  Atkinson says about half of her book is based on fact and half on fiction:  it is a “wrenching apart of history and an imaginative reconstruction.”

I previously read Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life.  I enjoyed it more than Transcription, so I’d recommend you put that one ahead of Transcription on your reading lists, but I can imagine other readers saying just the opposite.  Character…or plot?

5 comments on “Transcription by Kate Atkinson”

  1. I love spy thrillers. Have you watched the BBC series “The Bletchley Circle?” It’s about women code-breakers who get together after World War II to solve mysteries. It’s fiction, but it was interesting to learn a bit about forgotten women who helped win the war. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like “The Bletchley Circle, too. I hadn’t made the connection to “Transcription” though, Barbara!


    1. I’m fairly sure I came across her in the fiction writing course on FutureLearn from the University of Edinburgh. This is what Wiki says (and I agree): “Her work is often celebrated [by whom?] for its wit, wisdom and subtle characterisation, and the surprising twists and plot turns[citation needed].” Citations needed!


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