Kate Atkinson: Transcription


Even what exists doesn’t exist, says the spy Tomás in Javier Marías’ Berta Isla. What we do  has already been relegated to oblivion the very moment we do it. Of course it’s uncknowledged, like the actions carried by someone who never was.  Something like that. Even before we do it, it’s already non-existent. There’s really no difference between before and after. Before something has happened it hasn’t happened, and afterwards it hasn’t happened either…. 246

Who is a spy, a person who plays and discards so many parts? What’s left of the individual he or she once was?  And is the cause for which he spies a chameleon too, simultaneously noble and despicable? Double-dealing and wilful ignorance are essential to the game of spying and they seep into the spy’s being like ink into chalk. The spy cannot be known by anyone else, he cannot even be known to himself.

Berta Isla and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription both deal with these ideas, Marías in his usual ruminative, obsessive narratorial voice, Atkinson in the crisp voice of Juliet Armstrong, a clever girl who, as she represents it, almost accidentally ends up in the secret service, transcribing the conversations between Nazi sympathisers and an MI5 operative posing as a Nazi organiser in Britain. But gradually we discover that she’s far from straightforward. Switching between wartime and Juliet’s life as a BBC producer ten years later, Kate Atkinson very cleverly beguiles us into Juliet’s vision of things and then lets reality come pushing in from the past as the links that the spy relies on for a convincing narrative are broken apart.

A more mundane book than the Marías, but one that keeps you guessing and keeps you thinking.  Very enjoyable.


Here’s an interesting take on Transcription from Chris at Calmgrove:


12 thoughts on “Kate Atkinson: Transcription

  1. The cover had me at the flamingo, and I appreciated Calmgrove’s explanation of the significance. Sounds like a book that takes another angle on much of my MFA in creative nonfiction — what is creative, and what is nonfiction?

    1. Perhaps it was because I was reading the Marias at the same time, but the issue of identity was stronger for me than that aspect, which I thought Chris dealt with wonderfully in his comments.

  2. I listened to an abridged reading of Transcription on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, and while it was all very intriguing and nicely done, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by it in the end. Maybe something got lost in the edit, it’s hard to tell…

    1. Yes, I can understand that. It could come across as quite a good spy thriller but a bit cosy. Because of that theme of rewriting your own history there’s a special connection that needs a written document, I think.

  3. Just been catching up on the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ about how a wartime secretary (who also was involved in transcribing) discovers her dead husband had at least two if not three other wives and seven offspring, all in secret, and under cover of thriller writing (as Alexander Wilson) continued as a spy after the end of the war. These things seem to come in waves, whether coincidental or not!

    I did like your take on the Atkinson, more food for thought! And thanks for the kind mention of my review too. 😊

    As for Jacqui’s experience with the radio reading, I can see how a condensed version for broadcast may not do the novel full justice, especially with revealing the unreliable aspects of the narrative.

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