Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
Features Writer
5:07 PM 28th March 2021

Practise To Deceive: Transcription By Kate Atkinson

Having already read a few of Kate Atkinson’s novels, I picked this one off the bedside pile and settled down to enjoy it. It was a slow burn to say the least, as I read a few pages and put it down, only to be drawn back to it repeatedly over the next couple of days. Thank goodness then for a particularly inclement day which allowed me to wholly immerse myself for several hours in the world of war time spies and espionage.

Typical of Atkinson, the structure of the novel is complicated and it is set in three different time periods. The novel opens and ends in 1981. The protagonist lies dying, having been hit by a car, and she reflects on her life…

In 1940, an eighteen-year-old orphan, Juliet Armstrong (who has heard all the Romeo jokes), doesn’t take up her place at Oxford and finds herself instead, recruited by the Secret Service, to work in their clerical department which is actually housed, at the time, in Wormwood Scrubs. Intelligent and independent, she is quickly singled out and offered a more specialised role, transcribing the monitored conversations between Godfrey Toby, an MI5 agent, and the fifth columnists - English supporters of Hitler - who believe Godfrey is working for the Germans. Juliet adopts several different identities throughout the novel as she becomes more and more embroiled in the world of espionage. This novel is not one of ‘derring do’ or torturous inquisition, however, and does not focus on the war as six years of conflict are neatly passed over. Atkinson’s art lies in the subtle way she interweaves Juliet’s activities with a mundane existence.

The narrative shifts to 1950 and the tension rises once more. Juliet has moved on to become a producer in the Children’s department at the BBC, when she finds herself briefly pressed into service once more. She learns that although the war has ended, the work of MI5 goes on, and spying on whatever enemies exist continues, unabated. She also receives several anonymous messages warning her that she ‘will have to pay for what [she] did’ and she is convinced that she is being followed. The reader must infer that we have not after all been privy to all Juliet has done. This idea of consequences, and of every choice exacting a price, runs throughout the novel.

Kate Atkinson in 2007
Kate Atkinson in 2007
Her training, which had largely been alluded to rather than described in detail, now comes to the fore as the players, ‘the dualists’ in her old life seem to congregate once more. There is a neat twist, subtly introduced, towards the end, causing the reader to revisit their former opinions of Juliet; after all, as Juliet herself is told, ‘we believe what we want to believe’. Juliet’s naivety as she lives ‘between the darkness and the daylight’ is endearing, and her thoughts which form some of the narrative, provide gentle dry humour as well as pathos. As she remarks, ‘It seemed she had acquired all the drawbacks of being a mistress and none of the advantages - like sex. (She was becoming bolder with the word if not the act)’. She constantly waits for a romance with Perry; after all he calls her ‘my girl’ and gave her an engagement ring, but the reader understands it will never happen.

Atkinson has a smooth writing style which is particularly appealing and there is an intelligence to her work: she makes us think while we read. Her characters, however minor, are clearly drawn with thoughtful, often understated, detail which brings them to life - ‘the devil is in the detail’. Juliet Armstrong is honest and therefore vulnerable but ultimately, she can take care of herself. She’s smart, and a very good liar, as she slips between her different identities, whilst always maintaining a little distance. After all, who can one trust?

The cultural allusions to the period are woven discreetly into the text and, along with the language choices, give it credibility. The passing references to death remind us of the cruelty of war, which was a part of everyday existence for so many, for so long. ‘Juliet had the sense that she was taking part in a farce, although not one that was particularly funny - in fact, not funny at all.’ A palpable tension adheres to the book and the ending certainly isn’t predictable. The apparently unremarkable outward appearance of Juliet Armstrong is a description which could be applied to the novel, but just as Juliet has hidden depths so, too, does this book and they are depths well worth investigating.

Transcription is published by Transworld