Sunday, 28 October 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.

            London, 1940.  Eighteen year-old Juliet Armstrong is an orphan following the recent death of her beloved mother.  Fortunately, she has been raised to be resourceful and self-reliant, and her mother worked hard to provide her with the best education that she and various scholarships could achieve.
            Now Juliet is alone, but has landed herself a job – albeit a menial one – with a branch of MI5:  she will be transcribing secret recordings of the meetings of Hitler sympathisers and Fifth Columnists in an adjoining flat;  
those who admire the Third Reich and think it only a matter of time before England is invaded by the triumphant German Army.  Imagine them goose-stepping along the Mall:  what an uplifting sight!
            The clandestine meetings are conducted by Godfrey Toby, an MI5 operative posing as a Gestapo agent, and the darling of the little cabal of traitors who meet with him for tea and biscuits, imparting snippets of news of troop movements, industrial build-ups, and any gossip they may hear or can contribute to that may sow seeds of rebellion and dissent:  they are the Nazi version of the French Underground, and Juliet would find their treachery (artfully orchestrated by Godfrey) quite shocking – if only it weren’t so pedestrian, and frequently interrupted by a barking dog, for traitor #3?  4? Dolly always brings her dog Dibs along, and he seems to have as much to say in his little canine way, as the other plotters.  It is very hard to transcribe secrets when a lot of what she types is ‘conversation inaudible.  Dog barking.’
            Life starts looking up, however, when her shadowy bosses decide that (apart from continuing her daytime transcription duties – ‘it doesn’t matter when you type them, just as long as they are done.’) she is now ready for some field work:  because of her fresh prettiness and higher education, she may be able to penetrate the upper echelons of society to provide evidence of Far Right thinking amongst the Aristocracy.  Surely not!  The Great and the Good could never harbour such vipers to their bosoms.  Could they? 
            They could, and no-one is more horrified than Juliet to discover that various pillars of the Establishment are not marble, but crumbling clay.  And who spies on the Spies?  It becomes impossible to know which side her most trusted colleagues are on, as evidence mounts of betrayal in the most unlikely places. 
            Prize-winning author Kate Atkinson takes the reader on a heady ride through twentieth-century wartime history, shifting the action via flashback through a forty-year period.   Her characters are ordinary, flawed but always appealing and, as we expect with a writer of Ms Atkinson’s calibre, a rich vein of humour is threaded throughout, thanks to Juliet, who is singular and unforgettable.  There’s a twist to the tale, too, that I never saw coming:  that Juliet – who would have thought!  FIVE STARS.       

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