Reluctant Femme Fataleby Deepa Gahlot November 15 2018, 12:49 pm Estimated Reading Time: 2 mins, 41 secs
Most books about espionage have men running about doing the cloak and dagger stuff, occasionally running into a femme fatale for diversion. But there were many women who also did perilous assignments for their country, whose stories were never told.
Kate Atkinson’s new nook, Transcription is based on some true characters and events and its plucky heroine is a reluctant spy, who does her work with admirable equanimity, even though she did not choose to be in that murky world. There was admittedly some reluctance in picking up yet another World War II novel, but this one turned out to be fast-paced, suspenseful and very readable.
The protagonist is 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong, who is newly orphaned, and hoping for a better life. She gets the excitement she wants, but not in the way she expected. She is suddenly summoned to the offices of MI5, Britain’s security services, to be recruited, along with several young women, including the aristocratic Clarissa. For reasons she cannot fathom, she is picked by the enigmatic and handsome Peregrine ‘Perry’ Gibbons to move in next door to a flat where fifth columnists (British Nazi sympathizers) have their secret meetings. They do not know that their handler, Godfrey Toby, is not the Gestapo agent that he claims to be, but an MI5 spy.
The walls of the flat have been fitted with recording equipment - even then the techie was a clever teen - and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the tapes. It would have been terribly dull work, were it not for her infatuation with Perry, and her involvement with the more dangerous job of taking on the fake identity of the posh Iris Carter-Jenkins and infiltrating the circle of the traitorous Mrs Scaife.
Juliet discovers that not only does she have the imagination to fill in the blanks in the conversations next door, but also the courage to survive the lies, deceit, the cloak-and-dagger of the spy business.
After the end of the War, when she is working on a children’s radio programme with the BBC, she suddenly runs into Toby, who refuses to recognize her. Characters from the past, that she thought she was done with when she ceased to be spy, tumble out, and she starts getting threatening letters (“you will pay for what you did”) and people following her. It turns out that the warning about the work of the secret service never getting over, was right.
Juliet tries to find out just what is going on, and gets embroiled in events beyond her control. It is impossible to tell if people are who they claim to be (is the pesky assistant a spy?); whether a double agent is actually a triple agent, and why she is being targeted for her actions during the War, which were, after all not of her own choosing, and were meant to be for the benefit of her country.
Transcriptions is a wonderful book, about how multiple identities, crime, punishment, the conscience and, of course, the political choices people make, trace the course of their lives.
By Kate Atkinson