Juliet Armstrong was a spy.
Is a spy, will forever be a spy. During the war, in London, 1940, she worked as a typist for MI5, was lifted out of the obscurity of the secretarial pool to be the audio transcriptionist for an operation meant to ensnare British fifth columnists itching for the day that the Wehrmacht marched down the streets of London, then put into the field to infiltrate their anti-Semitic ranks in person.
She had a cover identity. She carried a small Mauser pistol in her handbag. She lied fluently and skillfully and did not see the end of the war without blood on her hands. She was 18 years old.
In 1950, the hot war done, the Cold War just beginning, she has gone to work as a producer at the BBC, doing mostly radio programs for schoolchildren and seniors. She's not alone: The place is lousy with former spies, its internal politics just as vicious, bitter and dangerous as MI5 during wartime.
But Juliet learned her lessons well during the war. She remembered all of them. She understands the utility of lies and misdirection, the usefulness of false identities, how one should always leave a thread of Aran wool stretched across the door at home to make sure no one has come in while you were away. And she still has her pistol.
Kate Atkinson's new novel Transcription follows Juliet through two lives: war and post-war (with just a momentary detour into 1981 which bookends the narrative, front and back). Atkinson shows her to us young and naïve and wanting — a romantic in love with the excitement of spying and her fantasies of being whisked away by her boss Peregrine ("Do call me Perry.") Gibbons. She works in Dolphin Square, in an apartment right next door to a bugged flat where Godfrey Toby, an MI5 counter-intelligence specialist, gathers a ridiculous, sad, fanatical gang of British Nazi sympathizers to drink tea, eat biscuits and daily implicate themselves as traitors. The microphones in the apartment hear everything. And Juliet dutifully types out the transcripts.
It's a fascinating set-up. The shifts between 1940 and 1950 allow us to see Juliet making choices, making mistakes, being forced into situations for which she is forever unprepared, and then to see the consequences. The scars she has to live with. How her experiences changed her. BBC Juliet is a bit cold, very calculating, a hardened pragmatist. She "wondered if one day she would think herself to death. Was that possible?" And she certainly tries. In Juliet the spy, we see all of these traits, all of her habits, being born out of necessity. She does some terrible things to protect herself, her colleagues, her mission. She racks up a debt of tragedy that dogs her for a decade.
In 1950, it comes due.
And through all of it, Atkinson is brilliant. Her characters are brilliant. Her command of the back-and-forth narrative, the un-fixedness of memory, the weight that guilt accrues over time and how we carry it is remarkable. And Juliet — snarky in a pre-snark world, a lapsed romantic embittered by what her service has cost her, talking to herself (and the reader) throughout the text in a half-stream-of-consciousness style complemented by a constant, parenthetical and combative internal monologue — is brilliant. Imagine lifting one of LeCarre's minor characters, a nameless listener, one of George Smiley's irregulars. Imagine an entire novel dedicated to her, traipsing around the borders of vital intelligence operations, never having all the answers, barely knowing the right questions.
(None of which will surprise you once you read the afterword by Atkinson, telling the story of how she found this story — or a version of this story — amid actual MI5 intelligence records recently declassified by the British government.)
Everything Atkinson does subverts the classic model of the spy story. It shows the ugly, cheap and utilitarian nature of the business from the inside — the dull and dreary hours punctuated only by the grinding fear that your lies will all come unraveled, and the horror of the violent moment when they actually do. My favorite piece of it is a bumbling mission late in the book when BBC-era Juliet is called briefly back into service to babysit a Czech defector being moved across London. MI5 needs her because they don't have any safe houses anymore. They call, essentially, to ask if the man can sleep the night on her couch.
It's that grunginess, that groundedness, that attention to the tiny, personal, low-stakes details (Juliet won't be paid for her work, but if the man eats anything, she'll be allowed to invoice the government) that elevates Transcription. It's what teases you in, deeper and deeper, until you're drowning in Juliet's melancholy and paranoia as her past comes back to haunt her in ways that are both imaginary and very real. Until you can feel how brittle her world has become.
Until you know, like she knows, that it can only hold for so long.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.