Transcription by Kate Atkinson


What a pleasing book this is. It kept surprising me as it tacked in one direction, then another.

It begins with Juliet Armstrong being hit by a car in 1981 and though she can hear someone calling her name to help her, she was unable to respond. She had been at a concert of Shostakovich string quartets  (the 7th, 8th, and 9th) at the Wigmore and it came to her she would miss the rest of them. She recalls hearing the concert premier of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad, in 1942. The listeners felt at one with the occupants of the siege, experiencing a “collective swelling of the heart.”

In 1950 Juliet worked for the BBC and we hear of her rather dreary existence as she complains of the cheeky receptionists and her earnest boss Mr. Prendergast, who suggests program topics such as “a visit to the blacksmith in his smithy.” She describes another colleague, Mr. Lofthouse, “Charles had trod the boards until his leg was blown off in the Cafe de Paris bomb in ’41 and he could tread no more.” His artificial leg made people kind to him, “Although there was no real reason why they should be as he was the waspish sort and it was doubtful that losing a leg had improved him.”

During the war Juliet, at age 18, had worked for MI5 in an operation that cultivated Nazi sympathizers. They met with an MI5 agent named Godfrey Toby regularly to report to the Nazis (so they thought) and were recorded with equipment in the neighboring apartment. Juliet’s role was to transcribe their conversations from that apartment. Peregrine Griffith oversaw the operation and Juliet was ever hopeful that Perry would finally kiss her — and more — on their outings which turned out to be long chilly bird-watching days with no food.

A Mr. Oliver Armstrong asks her to report to him any suspicious behaviors of Godfrey, the agent. “I would like you to keep an eye on him for me.” Juliet notes to herself what a perfectly horrible expression that was. Mr. Armstrong goes on to ask her to keep an eye out (worse, Juliet thinks) for anything that seems odd. When Juliet hears a woman calling for her maid, asks “‘Has the cat got your tongue?’ What an awful idea, Juliet thought. And how would the cat get it? By accident? Or by design?”

We learn more of that tumultuous time during the war as some of those she worked with turned up in her quieter life in 1950. And that quieter life turned out to be not so quiet either.

By chance the audiobook I listened to just before this one, Dear Mrs. Bird, was also set in London during the war. Though they were quite different in tone and substance, there was one event surprisingly mentioned in both, the bombing of the Cafe de Paris. In Dear Mrs. Bird, it was a momentous event, described in detail, and an important part of the plot. In Transcription it was mentioned in passing as the action largely took place before the blitz began.

Kate Atkinson, Transcription, Little, Brown and Company, 2018, 352 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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