Book Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

by Kate Atkinson

Publication date: March 21st 2019
Publisher: Black Swan (first published September 2018)
Pages: 416

Book #4 in the 2019 Rare Birds Reading Challenge


In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country’s most exceptional writers.

Source: Goodreads


I think WW2 must be a pretty trendy time to be writing about right now!

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson is set over two decades, flicking between the 1940s and the 1950s. Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old when she is recruited by MI5 to transcribe undercover conversations between British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet thinks her job is boring, and to be honest, it was pretty boring to read about it too.

At first I didn’t know if I wasn’t enjoying this book because I’ve read so many books set during WW2recently, or if there was something else I could get on with. I think it was mostly that I wasn’t really interested in the vast majority of the content, especially reading the mudane transcripts Juliet has managed to put together from some shaky recordings. I also don’t think the story was told in the most gripping way, certainly not the thriller it is reviewed to be, and I found myself drifting from the story on more than one occasion.

After transcribing for a few weeks, Juliet is later tasked with a more important role – heading out into the city undercover. I did enjoy the snippets of Juliet’s many aliases and there were a few parts where I really did feel for her, but as the pages went on, I began to feel annoyed with Juliet and her frivolous personality, the quips she made to herself and her obsession with rhymes.

“You have an eye,” Miss Gillies told her. I have two, she thought.” 

This is the second book that I’ve read which features a bombing at Café de Paris in Central London, the first being “Dear Mrs Bird“. Figuring this couldn’t have been a coincidence, I have since researched and found that this bombing was actually real – a fun fact I’ll keep hold of for the next lucky person I walk past the venue with! And while I didn’t love it, it’s great to know that so much research has gone into this book. I was impressed to see a list of references at the end to confirm that not everything was just a figment of the authors imagination.

“Don’t let your imagination run away with you…” But why would you not when the reality was so awful?” 

So I’m now a little anxious to start the other Kate Atkinson books I have on my shelf as I’m not sure if I’m going to get on with the style. I’ve got plenty of books to read at the moment, so I think I’ll push them down the pile and see how I feel in a few months time!

Overall rating: A story of espionage during WW2 sounds like it’s going to be a winner, but in reality I found that “Transcription” was a little boring and slow-paced for my liking. I liked the premise, but the story didn’t impress – 2 stars.

See my other reviews of books by Kate Atkinson here:

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

  1. I thought the first half of this was quite good but my opinion changed as I read on. I did find Juliet annoying but I wondered if this was supposed to be a reflection on how the war affected her.


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