Kate Atkinson’s Transcription

For light reading, I turned to Kate Atkinson’s spy story, Transcription.  It’s not as amazing as her Life After Life, but it’s a good read.

The central character, Juliet Armstrong, is working for the BBC in 1950 when she encounters someone from her past—the time in 1940 when she was 18 years old and transcribing recordings from hidden microphone for Britain’s MI-5 counterintelligence service.

Armstrong is an interesting and complicated character.  Her 18-year-old self is innocent and naive.  We the worldly readers who’ve read spy fiction understand what she sees better than she does herself.  Yet she also is secretive, deceptive and disinclined to take things at face value—a good fit for the world of espionage.

She is part of a team eavesdrops on a British fascist cell whose leader, unknown to its members, is himself a British intelligence agent.  Her job is to transcribe recordings from the hidden microphones in the rooms where they meet.

Eventually she is promoted to being an agent herself, spying on a higher-level group of British fascists called the Right Club.

At first her targets seem like harmless cranks.  But she soon learns she is in a real war, with real casualties.

The Right Club makes contact with one Chester Venderkamp, an American embassy employee who has obtained copies of secret messages exchanged by cable between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

These cables show President Roosevelt has violated American neutrality by supporting the British and trying to involve the United States in the war.

Vanderkamp gives copies of the cables to the Right Club so they can be sent to Germany, and, with Juliet’s help, they all are caught red-handed.

The Right Club really did exist, and it was headed by a Russian emigre named Anna Wolkoff, just as in the novel.  The real club was in contact with an American embassy employee named Kent Tyler, who did have copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill cables.

Unlike the Vanderkamp character, Tyler Kent was a whistleblower, who wanted to inform the U.S. Senate and American press of what President Roosevelt was up to.  In his own mind, Kent was an American patriot.

I think present-day whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning are heroes.  I don’t think Tyler Kent was a hero.  Am I inconsistent?  Maybe.  Circumstances alter cases.  Civilization hung in the balance in 1940.  Not so in 2010.

Kent got off lightly because the U.S. government could not afford a public trial in which the facts would come out.  Back in 1940, the U.S. government had no legal provision for secret trials or secret evidence based on claims of national security.

Following Vanderkamp’s arrest, the novel shifts back to 1950, where we appreciate the 28-year-old Juliet’s cunning and deviousness   When someone in the background of a live BBC broadcast is heard to say “fuck,” her solution is to destroy the recording of the broadcast and pretend the word was never spoken.  She also still works for MI-5 part-time.

She receives an ambiguous threat.  In order to learn the source, she tracks down all the principal figures from the 1940 chapters and learns their fates.  The threat comes from someone she wouldn’t have suspected, although a reader more astute than me might have figured it out.

We then return to 1940, and learn that Juliet has a killer instinct and also her ingenious idea for getting rid of an unwanted corpse.

Then back to 1950, where it turns out that, although most of the action is seen through Juliet’s eyes, there are important things about her we haven’t been told.  If I’d been expecting a surprise, I might have been able to predict it, based on subtle clues and the real evens of the time.  But I wasn’t, and I didn’t.

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