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

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – Book

Edward Todd, known as Ted or Teddy, was a pilot in World War
II. At the end of Kate Atkinson’s previous novel, Life after Life, which centered on Teddy’s sister, Ursula, Ted’s
plane crashed after he flew more missions that he ever should have and his
family is informed that he has been killed. Teddy comes back to life, however,
in this follow-up novel A God in Ruins.
He was apparently in a POW camp.
Ted and his family grew up in the English countryside,
although they were not farmers. Fox Corners offered an idyllic patchwork of
wild and tamed nature. Although he couldn’t join the Boy Scouts (obviously a
sore point) and had to spend his preteen days in the company of both girls and
boys in Kibbo Kift, perhaps an English version of 4H, he loved his life at Fox
Corners. He had a poetic and pastoral nature. Birds attracted him in
particular, but he liked all of it; the fields the skies, the stars, the dogs
that the families had, and the wide freedom of it. His mom, Sylvie and his dad,
Hugh, were not quite aristocracy, but they lived comfortable lives with a cook
and a housekeeper.
Teddy goes to private schools eventually. He wants to do
things like drive trains and fly planes. As Hitler is marching across Western and
Eastern Europe, Ted does get to fulfill his dream to be a pilot, but only as
the pilot of bombers in wartime. He trains in Canada and he shepherds his
flight teams through many successful missions and a few that are not so
successful. In this second novel, A God
in Ruins
, Ted comes back from the POW camps and lives out his life.
I would have thought that the author would have given him a
heroic life after the drama and terror of flying a plane full of bombs over
hostile armies that tried to shoot planes out of the sky. However, perhaps the author
wants us to understand the futility of the sacrifices made by these young men.
After the war, she tells us (and she did a lot of research), analysts concluded
that all this bombing did little damage to the German army, although hundreds
of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, died and German cities
were burned to the ground.
Do pilots bear the same guilt that the German people bear?
How about the guilt of those in command who knew that the effects of all that
bombing were not as great as you would think? How much of what those commanders
ordered was a form of vengeance? What purpose does war serve? I think Hitler
may be the only time we can give war a pass, although our guilt for killing
innocents should remain, as it should remain for all who take part in warfare.
But Ted did not live a life any different from most other
returning veterans (in fact his daughter was a real piece of work). He married
his childhood sweetheart more out of inevitability than love. How did that turn
out? Well, that’s the part I will not give away. But I will mention that there
is a wicked twist at the end of this novel which is there for mainly
philosophical reasons.
Kate Atkinson is an excellent writer who offers enough of the
beauty that makes our lives bearable, and plenty of the seemingly purposeful
banality, intentional and unintentional cruelty, and love that come along with
our position as the most sentient species on earth at the moment. Kate’s “hero”
Ted may have dropped a lot of bombs on unsuspecting humans, but we recognize
that his is a lovely person and well worth getting to know. Atkinson also
offers a depiction of the air wars over Germany spelled out in enough horrific
detail as to make us think long and hard about ever waging war again. Is there
a parallel here that she would like to make with using drones? (There is a
whole Adam and Eve metaphor. How far we have come from the garden?) Kate
Atkinson is, I believe, an important writer of our time, which, ironically,
only time will confirm.
By Nancy Brisson