Transcription by Kate Atkinson – Book

Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, joins a spate of World War literature coming out of Great Britain. All these books talk about what British citizens who were not soldiers did during wars. People wanted to help with the war effort and since many of the adults who were still in British cities were women, the tasks women took on often affected them in ways similar to the way soldiers are affected. The end of the war found women who had done unlikely, dangerous and heroic things, having to assimilate their war time behavior into the person they would be moving forward in peacetime. Other recent novels include: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn which I have not read yet, Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce, and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

Why is this the moment when so many writers were moved to write about such very similar experiences? Are people feeling an instability in political institutions these days that could lead to war? Are people rushing to offer us some patriotic roles that we could play? Is this a creative brain meld? Is this just an odd coincidence or nostalgic moment? With all the authoritarian figures rising in nations that once flirted with democracy does this feel somewhat similar to the rise of “you know who” before WWII? Are authors feeling the same fears we all feel that we may be called upon to defend our freedoms in the very near future, or to keep them alive for what could be decades of darkness?

Transcription is an absorbing book all on its own, but I recommend giving all these books a read because each takes a different tack on the same subject. In Transcription our heroine Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 to help keep an eye on Hitler lovers and want-to-be Nazi’s living in England. British intelligence rents two adjacent apartments. In one a rather convincing Godfrey Toby, a spy of course, makes friends and collects important data about England’s defenses. These friends of Hitler think Gordon will pass this strategic data on to Germany. Of course this is simply a way for Britain to keep this information away from Germany and keep potential British traitors from doing real damage to the allied side in the war.

The second apartment is filled with recording equipment and a typewriter where a very young Juliet listens to what Gordon’s unwary informants reveal and then types a transcript that tries to give a word-by-word script of who is talking and what they reveal. Not all of the dialogue comes across clearly but Juliet does the best she can. Then Juliet is embroiled further into spying when she is asked to adopt a new persona and join a more upscale right wing group of traitors. This is how a girl who simply types gets deeply into something that is so unforgettable that she will never be free of either her memories or her handlers.

Do books make the future and the culture happen, do they predict what will come, or do they just reflect the present and the culture of the times in which they are written? It seems that books can do all of these things, and they can sometimes do all of them at one and the same time, which is probably one of the aspects of reading great books that keeps readers hooked. So what will turn out to be true of this little cluster of intellectual doppelgangers?

I am happy to read every book that Kate Atkinson writes and I feel the same way about Michael Ondaatje. I don’t know the other two authors as well but I may eventually be adding them to my long list of beloved authors. However, I would much prefer that these novels be reflective rather than predictive. You may find that you begin asking yourself how you would have performed under similar circumstances. One more point, possibly a #metoo point, although all of these books feature female characters, not one of them is a “chick” book. But because they all happen in the past, all these women work for men. However war seems to blur the lines between women’s work and men’s work as you will see. Don’t forget to spend a few moments thinking about why this book is called Transcription rather than Transcriptions. Thank you Kate.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Running in Heels

Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce – Book

At first, when I began to listen to Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce, I thought I might be diving into a new Brigitte Jones style “chick lit” book. Since these books are a guilty pleasure of mine I was not unhappy about it. Emmeline Lake has a job at a law office (solicitor) but she wants to be a journalist. She has not taken any journalism courses but there is war in England and wars are often crucibles that enable those who are brave enough to do things without credentials. These fast lanes tend to disappear in peacetime. Emmy has a best friend she calls Bunty who grew up nearby and has been her friend for years. They share a small apartment in town on the third floor of a house belonging to Bunty’s parents. Bunty’s parents are no longer living but her grandmother is.

Bunty works in the War Office with secret documents and Emmeline works at the fire station several evenings a week taking emergency calls during the frequent bombing runs from Germany (it’s “the blitz”). Almost everyone who can does war work. When Emmy answers an ad that looks like it is for a “junior” at a prominent London newspaper she believes that this will be her entry into journalism. She shares her various unrealistic but highly idealistic fantasies on this theme with us. We are entertained.

The novel Pearce writes ends up being not nearly as superficial as it seems in the beginning. The job at the paper actually involves working with a woman who is a real character, actually an old battle axe, as we used to say. She comes from wealth but she is a country woman with lots of dogs and a gruff manner. She is involved in a number of charities and she is connected to important people who have known her all their lives. She’s never endearing but she is a force. Her name is Henrietta Bird and she answers letters in a column for women who need advice, in a news sheet style magazine called Women’s Helper. People address their letters to Dear Mrs. Bird.

The magazine is in decline as Mrs. Bird is not exactly modern and refuses to answer any problems that involve topics like sex, or affairs, or divorce, or even menopause “Buck up and get on with things,” is her usual advice favorite. When Emmy goes to work for Mrs. Bird deciding which letters Mrs. Bird will answer, she has difficulty ignoring the letters that seem to cry out for exactly the kinds of advice Mrs. Bird will not give. Emmy’s decisions relative to Mrs. Bird’s neglect end up bringing about a crisis for Emmeline that is quite adult. The war also hits far too close to home.

Although I found this book a bit young for me, I enjoyed it anyway. And the writing, although not terribly literary, never got in the way of the story. The author makes living in England, at the time when it was being bombed to rubble on every clear night, accessible to those who might like to flesh out their high school history lessons. Since I listened to the book I should note that the whole narrative was read in a particular British accent we Americans enjoy very much.