Books

book review

A literary cloak-and-dagger saga by a five-tool novelist

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography

In baseball, top prospects sometimes are described as five-tool players: They can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and field. In other words, they can do just about everything.

Kate Atkinson is a five-tool novelist. She can do detective fiction, historical fiction, and literary fiction. She can write multiverse-inspired novels (her most celebrated work, “Life After Life’’), and she can write Shakespeare-inspired comedies (“Human Croquet,’’ an earlier novel, just as inventive). She’s a tricksy plotter and a careful researcher. 

All of these novelistic skills are grand. But they don’t mean much unless the writer also possesses style — a way of transmuting these disparate skills into a unified aesthetic. And Atkinson’s style is singular and delightful. No matter the genre, Atkinson displays more wit and word play, more delight in the fecundity of the English language, than just about any contemporary novelist. When the main character of her latest novel, “Transcription,’’ thinks about her drowned father, for instance, she “indulge[s] in conjuring his pearlish eyes and coralline bones” — lines that quietly echo “The Tempest.’’ When that same character worries over her personal failings, she “wonder[s] if she didn’t carry a fatal flaw inside her — the crack in the golden bowl, invisible to the naked eye, but impossible to ignore once you knew about it”  — another quiet allusion, this time to Henry James’s late masterpiece. 

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Language is fundamentally generative for Atkinson; words beget other words; books beget other books. No matter how distractingly thrilling her plots are, we always sense a keen, and essentially verbal, intelligence behind them. 

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This is certainly true in “Transcription,’’ a cloak-and-dagger novel of sorts. The main character, Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 at the age of 18 during World War II. First, she listens in on, and transcribes the details of, conversations between a British agent and a circle of British subjects with Nazi sympathies. Then, she’s asked to enter the field herself, cozying up to a group of aristocratic British women with fascist pretensions. As one of these tony horrors puts it, “Judeo-Bolshevism — that is the enemy, and if Britain is to be great again then the foe must be eradicated from these shores.” (If you think that double-edged “make Britain great again” rhetoric is accidental, then you don’t know Atkinson’s sharp wit.)

When Atkinson writes in genre, she doesn’t go halfway. So Juliet has a safe house and a handler (several, actually, as various departments of the intelligence service jockey for supremacy), and a cover name: Iris Carter-Jenkins. The atmosphere is continually clouded by “a greasy, gaseous” fog that “stifle[s] sound so you couldn’t be entirely sure of anything.” The characters — their loyalties, their ultimate endgames — likewise remain foggy, ambiguous in motivation, too. 

“Transcription’’ is only a cloak-and-dagger novel of sorts, though, because its real strength lies not in the life of the spy but in the life of its language. About midway through, for example, Juliet is in danger of being discovered snooping around the house of the Jew-hating, Hitler-loving Mrs. Scaife. Juliet hides in a bedroom and hears the vile woman calling for her maid: “ ‘Dodds, can you hear me? Has the cat got your tongue?’ (What an awful idea, Juliet thought. And how would the cat get it — by accident or by design?)’’ 

Suspense is at its highest; the spy game is almost up. Yet Juliet still finds time to play a linguistic game, thinking about the strangeness of an idiomatic expression while her enemy stomps around below. That’s pure Atkinson. 

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“Transcription’’ moves back and forth in time — at the beginning and end all the way up to 1981 when Juliet finds herself lying in the street after being hit by a car, but most regularly from 1940 to 1950. In the rationed, dour postwar world, Juliet works on educational programming at the BBC, largely having left all that snooping behind. Yes, she occasionally has to help move assets — nuclear scientists, for instance — through Britain on their way out from behind the Iron Curtain. But her life, like her bombed-out country, is mainly workaday and boring, until it isn’t. Menacing figures start lurking in the fog, and Juliet begins seeing, or imagining she’s seeing, signs of her wartime efforts coming back: “Today the dead were everywhere, tumbling out of the box of the past and inhabiting the world of the living.” 

There are plot twists and character turns throughout, all leading to a final — and, to me, less successful — revelation at the end. There’s also playful self-awareness about these twists and turns and revelations. As Juliet thinks, “Perhaps I’m trapped in some awful radio drama, she thought. ‘Jack the Ripper’ or something histrionic by Poe.” In “Transcription,’’ Atkinson has her genre cake and eats it, too. But it’s the icing, that verbal wit and life without which the cake wouldn’t be a cake, that most sustains and delights.

TRANSCRIPTION

By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown, 352 pp., $28

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Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’