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Never-ending espionage   Leave a comment

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription blends humor, to be more specific it’s dry British wit, with espionage in 1940s London.

Juliet Armstrong is recruited by M15 to transcribe the recordings of conversations among British fascist sympathizers. Juliet is an unlikely candidate for such a role. She’s only 18-years-old, naïve and completely unprepared for the job, which she discovers is a learn-as-you-go experience.

Her role soon evolves from a transcriber to that of a spy – again something for which she has neither experience nor aptitude. She is somewhat successful, however, in inserting herself among the fascists; although she faces a number of close calls and near misses of having her true identify revealed.

Ten years later, Juliet is surprised to be approached by M15 again, long after she was certain her connection with the organization was over. Though older, she retains much of her naiveté and is again thrust into dealing with espionage related to a more subtle war.

Atkinson’s characters are easy to visualize. Their proper British mannerisms and decorum, even when dealing with undercover activities, is amusing. Some conversations and situations take on a near slap-stick style, resulting in some laugh-out-loud moments. Fortunately, it’s far more subtle than pie-in-the-face action.

An element of pathos exists in Juliet’s personality based on her inability to initially recognize the control M15 has on her life.


Four Bookmarks

Back Bay Books, 2018

339 pages, including Author’s notes and sources

Again and Again and …   2 comments


Attempting to describe Kate Atkinson’s most recent novel, Life After Life, is like sharing a recipe that’s undergone several transformations or tweaks here and there. The end result may be familiar, but the process is not.

Jumping from pre-war Germany to the halcyon country life of the Todd family to London in various parts of the first and second World Wars, Atkinson takes the Groundhog Day concept of redoing things – life – until they’re done right, or at least differently. Paying close attention to the chapter headings is essential.

Ursula Todd’s personal history is told with variations beginning with several involving the day she was born. These range from death at childbirth to the family doctor arriving in time to ensure her survival. The Todd family remains constant, as do most of the other characters and events. Some are slightly altered, while others undergo major conversions, but all are interesting, some uncomfortable and a few are actually happy. Even the Veal ala Russe, a favorite of the Todd family cook, Mrs. Glover, makes recurring appearances, but none reflect an improvement on the dish.

The underlying theme of the novel is to question what happens if one had never been born. Or, what if Ursula had been more assertive at certain points in her life, or what if she shared troubling observations with those around her? Of course, no one ever knows, which is what makes Atkinson’s work so intriguing; she offers a slew of possibilities right up to the final pages.

Life After Life
Four Bookmarks
Little Brown and Co., 2013
529 pages