Books

Why Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is your must-read novel for Autumn

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Sarah Shaffi
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Multi award-winning author Kate Atkinson is back, with a no-holds-barred novel that certainly speaks to our troubled times. Stylist sits down with the author to discuss fake news, Donald Trump and why the female characters in the book didn’t need any love interests

A rising tide of nationalism, the loss of truth as an absolute, a media that is finding its feet in new circumstances… Kate Atkinson’s new novel Transcription, despite being largely set during the Second World War, speaks to our times both clearly and with conviction.

The book focuses on Juliet Amstrong, an 18-year-old who is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Working for the suave Perry, she spends her days in a tiny flat, transcribing the conversations that MI5 agent Godfrey Toby has with Nazi sympathisers, all of whom think they are actually talking to a Gestapo agent. Years later, working at the BBC, Juliet catches a glimpse of Godfrey, and must face up to the consequences of a terrible event that links them both.

It’s easy to think that Transcription is a war novel; it’s set in 1940, and focuses on a group of people trying to bring down fascists. It’s also Atkinson’s third book set in the Second World War, after the brilliant Life After Life and its companion novel (but not sequel) A God in Ruins. Both books won Atkinson the Costa Novel Award, in 2013 and 2016 respectively. She had previously won the award for her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum in 1995, making her the first author to win the prize three times.

But just like Life After Life and A God in Ruins, Transcription isn’t a war novel, at least not in the sense that we usually mean: it’s missing many classic hallmarks of the genre, including any talk of fighting, falling bombs and Blitz spirit.

Kate Atkinson with her Costa novel award-winning book, Life After Life

Instead, this is pure literary fiction. And refreshingly, we rarely see any romantic relationships in the book (there’s a blink and you’ll miss it one); instead, most of the women we encounter are single, and anyone - male or female - that is married has a spouse who we never see. Juliet is refreshingly honest with herself about her desires, and when we meet her in the years after the war it’s clear she’s had a number of romantic and sexual relationships.

Says Atkinson: “For so long I had this kind of ‘oh, you write about families, you write about mothers, you write about children’ [line of thinking] and the last books haven’t been about that, and they all have been set during the war.

“If you look at people during the war, they’re not [with someone], unless you’re going to take your average suburban family, which is not necessarily interesting. A lot of people are on their own, and a lot of young women are on their own.”

Atkinson says that she hasn’t “really consciously” thought about the fact that her characters were very independent, but knew none of the women in the book needed to be centred in a romantic or family-based context.

“If you were in any male institution, like MI5 or the BBC, and you were to meet a typical man within that institution, they’re not going ‘oh, I have the kids at home, I’ve got to get the fish fingers for tea’,” she says. “They are completely isolated from all of that; someone else is seeing to that business.” 

Atkinson says she knew none of the women in the book needed to be centred in a romantic or family-based context

As well as the lack of romance, one of the most fascinating things about Transcription is its portrayal of how mundane the work of MI5 actually was in the early days of the war - bringing down the enemy at home consisted of endless conversations, boring teas and filtering through banal facts.

“It could have been a spy novel… I suppose Juliet has her moments, but it’s really about the mundanity of [MI5],” says Atkinson. “[The book] was about the characters and their identity and their ambivalence. It is all about fakery.”

Even if the real-life transcriptions that Atkinson used as inspiration for the novel were, as she puts it, “tedious”, the book is thrilling in its portrayal of a tension-filled world where the reader is slowly led down the path to discovering what exactly haunts Juliet from her time with MI5. It’s also fascinating that Atkinson has written a novel that examines fascism, nationalism and patriotism, all terms that we’re still trying to get to grips with in 2018.

“For a long time I have been saying that nationalism is the first step on the road to fascism,” says Atkinson. “Nationalism is small thinking, when the world is not small anymore… underpinning it is this sense of how you define your country. And the problem is that everyone defines their country differently.”

At one point, Juliet is thrust into the world of British fascists, who aren’t afraid to air their anti-Semitic and racist views in public. Even some of Juliet’s superiors freely admit they were previously part of the Right Club – although they say it was for work reasons, their politics are more than a little ambiguous.

We now live in a world where we’re seeing rising tides of anti-Semitism and racism, both here and across the pond in America.

“It is OK to say terrible things again,” says Atkinson. “You can now be open in your extremity, and I think we’re very unsettled because it’s never happened before, not in our lifetimes. And we have no understanding of what the consequences might be, now that truth is no longer considered to be an absolute. It’s very disturbing for us.

“People are very prone to believe what they’re told, and nowadays that is just rampant; people are believing things that are blatantly not true, because they are told them. They’re told them in so many different ways on so many platforms, and truth is the thing that has been lost.”

Fake news is spread rapidly across social media platforms

You can’t help seeing today’s discussions about truth and the media reflected in Transcription, especially given how big a role the BBC plays in the book. Today, it seems the corporation is the subject of almost constant criticism when it comes to its stance on neutrality, and how that cuts into the truth. Is it responsible for the BBC to give airtime to climate change deniers? Should the corporation really be interviewing figures such as Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage?

In the book, the BBC Juliet knows is populated by a number of people from her MI5 past, and the department she is a producer in is overly cautious. Despite having just been through a war, a history show Juliet works on will avoid covering the Great Plague entirely because it is deemed too gruesome.

And speaking about the undeniable influence of the BBC, Atkinson says there was a sense that both the corporation, and MI5, figured “very large in the way that the national life was constituted” back in the Forties.

“The BBC was hugely important during the war, and if you are going to be hugely important during a war you are going to come within that umbrella of wartime establishment,” she adds. 

But today, she says, the BBC is in a very different position: “I think the BBC has a big problem in that they’re set up as the national broadcaster.

“They have a brief, they have a charter, they have almost a manifesto that they’re supposed to follow, and they have had a huge place in our historical thinking, because they started off as the monolithic broadcaster.

“Now they’re tiny. I don’t think they know where they fit anymore, because the other giants have made them rethink themselves – but have they done that successfully? I think they’re still in a transitional state, and I suppose if you are in a transitional state you expect to land somewhere, and I don’t think people land anywhere any more. Things continue to be transitional, which is deeply disturbing for everyone.”

There are now several generations, says Atkinson, who “do not go to the BBC for their reality or their facts or their not-fake news”.

Atkinson says she was thinking about Donald Trump at certain points during her writing of Transcription

Truth, fake news – it’s almost like Donald Trump is being invoked at times in Transcription. Atkinson says: “There’s a point where Perry says to Juliet, in response to her comment that Hitler is a clown, that the clowns are the dangerous ones. I was certainly thinking of Trump at that point.”

That Perry and Juliet are talking about Hitler, and that we can take the same thoughts and apply them to our times, shows just how apt Transcription’s title really is. It describes the job that Juliet is hired to do, but it’s also a signifier of how words have layers of meaning depending on context, and how people can appear to be one thing when they are actually another.

The true meaning of the title only becomes clear at the end of the book, but Atkinson still leaves enough ambiguity around her characters that Transcription will have you turning over different meanings for their words and actions long after you’ve finished reading the novel.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is available for £13.18 on amazon.co.uk

Images: Unsplash