I stumbled upon Life After Life by Kate Atkinson after some favorable Cannonball reviews, and I really liked it. So when I saw that Atkinson had a new book out, Transcription (2018), I immediately put a hold on it at the library. Like the other books I’ve read by Atkinson, most of the events of this book take place in and around WWII.
This story is split into two time frames. The first is during the war, where our protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, works as a typist for MI5. The second is after the war, about 1950 when Juliet Armstrong works as a radio producer for the BBC. At MI5, Juliet is quickly recruited for a small side project. She works in an apartment, next door to Godfrey, an English spy pretending to be a German spy. She makes transcriptions of all the conversations between him and other German sympathizers.
When the story switches to after the war, there are continuous hints of something that went bad with Juliet and her job with the MI5, but we don’t know what. Back in 1950, Juliet is not particularly fulfilled by her job at the BBC. She runs into Godfrey, but he pretends he doesn’t know her. At the same time, Juliet feels sure that she is being followed. She tries to find everyone involved with whatever went down during the war, hoping to discover who is following her and why. It’s hard for the reader to know whether someone is really after her or if Juliet is being paranoid and crazy.
I can appreciate that there is some good writing in this book, but I found it rather challenging to read. I liked Life After Life much better. For much of this book, my primary emotion was confusion. There were many characters that I didn’t know much about and I couldn’t keep straight. I also had a hard time figuring out what was actually going on. I know this was by design, but it made for a not-as-fun read.
Atkinson wrote a story filled with spies, subterfuge, and double agents. She purposely makes you question–and not truly understand–any of the characters. It’s a unique story, but when the characters are so shadowy and mysterious, it’s hard to connect to any of them. For most of the story, I just felt like Atkinson was messing with my head. And although there are some reveals in the end, I did not find it very satisfying. Even after the reveal I was left with questions, and much of the rigmarole seemed pointless. Again, I do think this was intentional, but I often found it to be a frustrating reading experience.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.