Book Review: Book that shows us round the many shadowy corridors of Juliet’s life

Transcription is the extraordinary tale of the ‘completely average for my age’ Juliet Armstrong, recruited in 1940 when she is 18 to work for MI5.The job, that begins as typing work for an operation rooting out Nazi sympathisers from the ‘fifth column,’ soon develops into something much riskier.

Monday, 20th September 2021, 12:27 pm

We also join Juliet several decades later when she’s working as a radio producer and the events of her past once again begin to loom large.

From the outset of the book, it is clear we’re in the hands of a supremely confident writer – it’s a joy to settle in for the ride as Atkinson shows us round the many shadowy corridors of Juliet’s life.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

Another sign of this wonderful authorial confidence is how understated it all is – this is an exciting book pretending to be a book where not much happens.

It’s frightfully sedate prose, and at times it is only when you look away from the page and reflect that you realise quite how eventful it’s been.

It’s the literary equivalent of when Sarah Montague used to present the Today programme – she could have been reporting on the apocalypse itself and still maintained her calm, reassuring tone.

International espionage, death and intrigue across London, you say, nothing to get het up about. Keep calm and carry on.

Atkinson plays fast and loose with her chronology throughout the book, particularly in its final sections.

We jump about between the different decades of Juliet’s life and the tenses do all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

But it never feels anything less than assured.

This is a book about deception and lies: when they matter, when they don’t, and when they’re essential. Juliet herself is a pathological liar.

It doesn’t seem to occur to her that authenticity is an option available to her and maybe, given the circumstances of her life, it’s not.

There’s layer upon layer of deceit to unpick and it’s only in the final few pages – if at all – that we see the whole picture.

This is dramatic, gripping storytelling that somehow also manages to be relaxing to read.

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