In 1940, Juliet Armstrong, an 18-year-old English file clerk, is recruited to be a spy for the British Secret Service, otherwise known as M15. Her assignment is to monitor and transcribe recordings of meetings in an apartment bugged with multiple microphones.
The conversations are between “fifth columnists,” or British fascist sympathizers, and her boss, Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster. Atkinson’s thriller “Transcription” is shot through with humorous incidents, several deriving from Juliet’s frustrations in trying to make sense of some of the mutterings she is trying to transcribe. For example, at one point, she is concerned the outcome of the war may well be determined by whether one of the Nazi sympathizers is “thinking of taking a train…or cleaning the drains.”
The narrative then jumps ahead 10 years to 1950, when Julia is working as a producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation. The war has been over for five years and she presumes its events have been consigned to the past. But on a lunchtime walk she runs into Godfrey Toby. Juliet rushes to greet him, but he denies his identity and retorts that she has the wrong person. The rejection by this former espionage officer and colleague leaves Juliet taken aback.
The encounter reminds her of a host of lies she told during the war. What she did in the war years makes for thrilling reading. A notice is left for her at the front desk of the BBC stating, “You will pay for what you did.” Juliet is then followed in a thick London fog by someone “tap-tap-tapping” their cane closer and closer. When she slips into a library to take a photograph of some incriminating documents at an upper class cocktail party a man jumps out of the shadows toward her. Juliet’s paranoia kicks in and she realizes her official life as a cipher may be over, but she is still in peril.
The idea that every choice has later consequences is a theme that runs throughout the story. A wry and inventive writer, Atkinson’s overall theme is the way fate teases, torments and toys with people. At the end of the book this skilled storyteller asks readers to consider their recent past and the price of their choices.