Book Review: Transcription

Juliet never set out to be a spy, she just, sort of… fell into it. Surrounded by secrets, monitoring the movements of Fascist sympathisers, Juliet is glad to leave both the boredom and the fear of her wartime experiences behind her at the end of her years of work. A decade later though, Juliet finds herself under threat from a figure from the past she was so eager to escape. Is it possible to move on? Or do our secrets follow us forever?

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson, is an entertaining piece of historical fiction, although I think it fell short of being a really great story. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style; the way Juliet’s thoughts were interspersed with the narrative was consistently entertaining and made her feel very three-dimensional as a character. Also, I’ve done transcription work, and I empathised enormously with some of Juliet’s frustrations (Why do people have to talk over each other all the time? Why can’t they speak more clearly? Can’t they just wait until that irritating background noise stops?!) which was a selling point for me. Even beyond the great use of close third-person perspective though, the writing was wonderful, start to finish. Eminently readable.

Juliet as a character, as I already mentioned, was very appealing, and some of the other characters were entertaining or interesting although many of them faded into the background. This is partly because there was quite a large cast of characters, and they were in very distinct groups, so there was very little room for overlap and it felt like we’d go a long time before checking in with any one set. There’s also the fact that many of the characters were spies, or leading highly secretive lives for other reasons, and so there was a consistent sense that we didn’t really know any of them. That does add a sense of intrigue to the story, but I think it also meant we lost out on a feeling of connection to other characters which we might have otherwise had.

Quote from Transcription: "Sometimes she wondered if she wasn't just making things up, filling in the gaps to make sense of it. Not that anyone would notice."
Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

Juliet’s relationship with Perry was one of the things I found most enjoyable, and he was definitely one of the more compelling supporting characters to me, despite his frequent absence from the foreground of the story. I think I liked him so much because he clearly had something going on in his personal life that Juliet wasn’t picking up on, a version of dramatic irony that’s pretty difficult to pull off with the perspective Atkinson was writing in, which was by turns amusing and kind of sad to read.

The telling across two different times took a while to start paying off, and I never got that moment of excitement or clarity where the storylines converged or one suddenly shed a light on the other. There is a central mystery, referenced periodically, and it is revealed, and it was interesting. I wouldn’t go further than that. It was interesting to find out what had happened, but it felt neither shocking nor inevitable, like puzzle pieces slotting into place. There were a few moments in the story like this, where I wondered if a comment or revelation from a character was meant to feel more impactful than it did. I’m not sure if this was a function of Juliet having quite a wry, dispassionate narrative style, or a lack of clarity over the consequences of these revelations, but in either case it felt like a series of missed opportunities.

There was a lot of complexity around who could be trusted, and who might in fact be a double agent and, at the time of reading, I liked that this was mostly hinted at rather than being made explicit. It gave certain sections of the story an underlying menace, subtle but definite. That said, by the time we reached the end of the book I had completely lost interest in who was on what side, and I think that’s the downside of the subtlety. Because it was all just alluded to, and never seemed to spend much time at the forefront of Juliet’s narration, it never felt like it mattered very much.

Transcription isn’t a long book, I read it in a couple of days while on holiday, and it’s a delightfully written and unique take on the spy novel genre, which I definitely appreciated. That said, I think it ultimately took subtlety too far and ended up being ultimately a little forgettable. I don’t think it matches up to the other book of Atkinson’s I’ve read, Life After Life, although if you’re a big fan of historical fiction and/or World War II-era fiction Transcription may hold more interest for you than it did for me.

This is a Review of the Month for the review collection on

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