Likely Stories : Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

Dec 23, 2021

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was named England’s Whitbread Book of the Year in 1996.  Since then, she has written nine more novels, and she lives in Edinburgh.  Transcription is a recent novel.


Set in 1940, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited into the mysterious MI5 department to monitor British Fascist sympathizers.  Atkinson writes, “‘Miss Armstrong?  Miss Armstrong, can you hear me?’ // She could, although she didn’t seem able to respond.  She was badly damaged.  Broken.  She had been hit by a car.  It might have been her own fault, she had been distracted—she had lived for so long abroad that she probably looked the wrong way when she was crossing Wigmore Street in the midsummer twilight.  Between the dark and the daylight.  ‘Miss Armstrong?’ // A policeman?  Or a paramedic.  Someone official, someone who must have looked in her bag and found something with her name on it.  She had been at a concert—Shostakovich” (3).

Eight years later, “Juliet came up from the Underground and made her way along Great Portland Street.  Checking her watch, she saw that she was surprisingly late for work.  She had overslept, a result of a late evening in the Belle Meunière in Charlotte Street with a man who had proved less and less interesting as the night had worn on.  Inertia—or ennui, perhaps—had kept her at the table, although the house specialties of Viande de boeuf Diane and Crêpes Suzette had helped. // Her somewhat lackluster dinner companion was an architect who said he was ‘rebuilding post-war London.’  ‘All on your own?’ she asked, rather unkindly.  She allowed him a—brief—kiss as he handed her into a taxi at the end of the night.  From politeness rather than desire.  He had paid for the dinner, after all, and she had been unnecessarily mean to him, although he hadn’t seemed to notice.  The whole evening had left her feeling rather sour. (7).  A boring day after a boring night.

Kate writes, “When her coffee arrived, Juliet swallowed it down like medicine, hoping  it would perk her up for the afternoon’s onslaught, and then gazed like a clairvoyant at the coffee grounds that were left at the bottom of the small cup.  Why would Godfrey Toby refuse to acknowledge her? // He had been coming out of a bank.  That used to be his cover—bank clerk.  It was clever really, no one wanted to engage a bank clerk in conversation about his job.  Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harboring a secret—a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy—but as time had gone by she’d realized that being ordinary was his secret.  It was the best disguise of all really, wasn’t it?

Kate Atkinson’s thrilling spy novel, Transcription, is only a few hidden moments below that of John LeCarrè.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!