A new Kate Atkinson novel is An Event. Transcription, forthcoming in September, is her first since A God In Ruins, which (at least for me) tore up the WWII novel playbook and should have been on the Women’s Prize longlist that year. This is also a WWII novel, at least in part, and also approaches the conflict sidelong, in the character of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited by MI5 at the age of seventeen. She is a typist, seconded to a mission that aims to ferret out fifth-columnists and divert their pro-German sentiments into a harmless channel. To that end, Godfrey Toby, an agent whose interwar activities no one knows much about, is assigned to pose as an undercover Gestapo officer, a flat in Pimlico’s Dolphin Square serving as a base for his “informers”, most of them lower-middle-class people motivated by ignorant anti-Semitic resentment. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door, transcribing the conversations that are recorded through the wall. During the course of her mission, something appalling happens, and after the war ends – as Juliet takes a job in Schools programming at the BBC – a series of coincidences makes her begin to wonder whether what she did in the war is coming back to haunt her.
The mystery of what happened is not the most compelling part of Transcription, which some readers are going to see as a weakness. I don’t. By far the most interesting aspect of the book is Juliet, whose completely unflappable exterior doesn’t so much mask desperate paddling under the surface as it does a sense of extraordinary detachment. She loses her mother young (just before her recruitment, in fact), and her father has never been a presence. Although it’s not dwelt on, Atkinson reminds us every so often that Juliet has been, amongst other things, a chambermaid; she has done hard, physical work, and been unsure of where the next meal might be coming from. Being swept up by MI5 doesn’t seem to make her star-struck, or eager to please: she views the situation more as a turn of the wheel of fortune, something that has happened to her and which she might as well be doing as anything else. In her initial interview for the typist job, she does nothing but lie, apparently uninterested in making the sort of “good impression” a young woman in the ’40s might be expected to prioritise. It’s the speed and thoroughness of the lying, we infer, that gets her the job. The other fascinating aspect of Transcription is the glimpse into the post-war BBC; it’s not quite W1A, but the institution has clearly always had one foot in the realm of pure absurdity. (A delightful problem arises when a voice actor on a brief educational segment meant to showcase a “day in the life” of a medieval village is caught on air uttering, quietly but distinctly, “fuck fuck fuck fuckity-fuck”.)
Reading this shortly after Cressida Connolly’s After the Party was an especially constructive experience. Where Connolly’s British Fascists are county-set types, men who work in banking and their wives who throw themed dinner parties, Atkinson’s are grubbier and more depressing: women called Dot and Betty and Trude, men who work on the railways (probably more useful to a horde of invading Nazis). The appalling event is an accident, precipitated by carelessness; it’s almost bathetic, the realisation that although the fifth-columnists next door seem foolish and ignorant, it is possible to be simultaneously silly and dangerous. And, running under it all, there’s another thing that Juliet does for MI5, which the reader suspects is the real heart of the book; but our gaze is never directed there. Among the period details of dress and slang and food, Atkinson has placed a serpent of a plot point. You might have to read the book twice before you tread on it. But you’ll probably want to.