This was the second book I’ve read in the past year that deals with England in the post-World War Two period and touches on the subject of spies and secrets. (Warlight by Michael Ondaatje was the other.) And while there are a lot of books written about World War Two and a lot of books set in England at that time, that post-war period doesn’t seem to have been as proudly explored. As such, I found Transcription particularly fascinating.
The novel deals in two time periods, both focused on Juliet Armstrong. In 1940, Juliet is eighteen-years-old, recently orphaned by the death of her mother, when she is recruited by British Intelligence to work for a man named Peregrine Gibbons. He leads a team keeping an eye on possible traitors within London. A group of fascist sympathizers think they’re reporting to a German officer when really their every move is recorded by the Brits. Juliet transcribes their conversations from the apartment next door. She is also drawn into a plot to catch a more upscale enemy sympathizer and for this dons a second identity.
Ten years later, in 1950, the war is over and Juliet works for that other great English institution, the BBC. But her involvement in secrets and conspiracies may not be completely finished. The juxtaposition of these two jobs is well done and quite interesting to read about. The changes in Juliet’s personality and lifestyle between these two points is also evocatively written. At first she seemed like an entirely different character but as the story progressed it was clear how the events of the war changed her.
For me, this was one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. I tend to think of veterans of World War Two only as very old men and women. But here we have a generation only a few years from war. They have survived in the very midst of it but have witnessed the deaths of many friends, family, and acquaintances. There are young men physically maimed or mentally damaged. This is the story of rebuilding, of what life looks like when you survive destruction. It is the question of – “Is it worth it?” “Did we do the right thing?” “Was the cost too great?”
Atkinson delves into these questions without offering complete answers. Instead we are given a glimpse of how these characters might answer, and left to decide our own responses based on what has been sacrificed.