Kate Atkinson’s wartime spy drama is out now in paperback – here’s why we’re obsessed with its leading lady…
Having scooped up a host of awards for bestselling novels Life After Life and A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson is back with Transcription, another page-turning slice of literary fiction that’s about to become the next paperback on your must-read list.
Set in 1940 (and several time periods after), the novel follows 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong as she’s reluctantly recruited into the murky world of MI5 espionage.
Initially stuck behind a typewriter transcribing the mundane chatter of fascist sympathisers, Juliet soon finds herself out in the field, where her actions have consequences reaching far beyond the end of the war.
It’s a thrilling tale of shifting identities and questionable loyalties, but it’s the sardonic, precocious and super-relatable Juliet who’s the real star of the show.
Here’s why you’re about to fall in love with her…
1. She’s really funny
Kate Atkinson’s novels are always very witty, but Juliet’s ultra-dry inner (and outer) monologue might make her the author’s funniest creation to date.
The very first time we meet her, she’s shooting down an overconfident suitor, who boasts that he’s “rebuilding post-war London”. “All on your own?” she replies.
Then, when dealing with a Nazi sympathiser, she muses that “if it weren’t for her rabid anti-semitism or her worship of Hitler, they might have got on”.
It’s a rare treat to meet a heroine who helps herself to all the best lines – humour is one of Juliet’s main weapons in a world bursting with pompous male authority figures in need of being lowered a peg or two.
You’ll want to be her friend after the very first chapter.
2. She has to put up with a lot of sexist nonsense
This being the Forties, workplace attitudes aren’t exactly woke, and Juliet spends a great deal of time being talked down to by her male colleagues.
As she says of her MI5 boss, “he seemed to regard her as a rather precocious child (or a particularly clever dog), although more often than not she was just a girl, and an invisible one at that”.
Sure enough, Juliet spends as much time asked to make tea and empty ashtrays as she does engage in actual espionage.
Even in the Fifties, when Juliet is older and more established in a broadcasting career, she still finds herself surrounded by the bumbling grey men of the BBC, who insist on treating her like a little girl.
Despite demonstrating herself more than capable in both professions, genuine plaudits from her male superiors remain frustratingly hard to come by.
3. She’s not afraid of her sexuality
Think of a female character in a wartime drama – chances are, dealing with her sexual desires will be pretty low on the storytelling agenda.
Juliet, however, is refreshingly frank about her wants and needs – even if her 18-year-old self is more eager to get started than living her best life.
“Juliet was waiting to be seduced by him,” Atkinson says of her boss. “By anyone really, but preferably him. It was turning into a rather long wait.”
Happily, when we meet her again a decade later, things seem to have changed for the better, with references to past flames (“a man in Washington… rather useful”) dotted throughout the narrative.
Refreshingly for a period drama, sex for Juliet is something to be enjoyed. If there’s any prim fussiness around the subject, it comes from her male counterparts rather than her.
4. She doesn’t have all the answers
Perhaps most relatable of all is how frequently Juliet finds herself out of her depth.
Whether it’s the gusto with which she throws herself into extremely dangerous situations, or the way in which she fails to spot what’s really happening between her and her boss, the younger Juliet is naive in a lot of ways.
Nor is she the perfect heroine by any stretch, taking occasionally life-threatening risks and readily acknowledging she can be too hard on people.
She’s not a superhero and she gets it wrong a lot of the time, yet her basic decency and determination make her a character you can’t help but root for.
5. She makes things happen
Despite being constantly under-estimated by her peers, Juliet proves herself to be an extremely canny operator, well capable of plotting her own course through an increasingly tangled web.
“She was clearly intended to be a pawn in this game,” she notes at one point. “But I am a queen… able to move in any direction.”
Even when events seem to be spiralling out of control, she never sits passively, waiting for the story to happen around her.
Instead, she grits her teeth and gets on with things, recognising that the world she’s living in isn’t going to give her anything for free.
Exactly the kind of heroine we can get behind.
Transcription is out now in paperback, available to buy at Waterstones in-store or online