Kate Atkinson

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Kate Atkinson

‘Think of it as an adventure, Perry had said right at the beginning of all this.And it had seemed like one. A bit of a lark, she had thought. A Girls' Own adventure.‘

In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country’s most exceptional writers.


Kate Atkinson has a gift for blending fiction with historical detail. Life After Life (2013) and its companion, A God in Ruins (2015), are brilliant evocations of England, set predominantly during World War II and its aftermath, that use their period settings to investigate complex stories about the mutability of identity. Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, mines a similar historical period. It’s inspired by real events the author uncovered in National Archive files, in particular, the story of a British spy who posed as a Gestapo officer during the so-called ‘Phoney War’ (1939-40).

Transcription begins with a short sequence set in 1981 in which Juliet Armstrong has an awkward encounter with a ghost from her past. Shifting back to 1950, we see Juliet working for the BBC’s school’s programming division, helping them repackage British history for educational purposes. Atkinson swiftly heads back to 1940, from where the bulk of the novel’s action unfolds. We see Juliet at eighteen, plucked from a secretarial pool in Security Services by the tweed-clad Perry Gibbons to be his ‘girl’ in a vague corner of MI5. Juliet’s weapon is a typewriter. Her assignment – to spend her days in an apartment transcribing conversations taking place in the adjoining room between a spy, Godfrey Todd, and the ‘home grown evil’ (Nazi sympathisers) who divulge their secrets to him. Before long, Juliet has her own undercover identity, bringing her closer to the chilling, often ludicrous nature of spy work.

Written with smart, sharp, funny prose, Transcription’s multiple pleasures and thrills are frequently unexpected. In Juliet, Atkinson has fashioned a protagonist at first innocent then scathing of what she sees. The theme of ‘transcription’ takes on a deeper meaning as Juliet learns that the dark shadows of espionage and war are protracted and inescapable. I couldn’t put Transcription down. I think it’s a page-turner of the highest calibre.

Joanna Di Mattia works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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