What I’m reading: The very best of English writing



Eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong takes a job with MI5 in 1940, typing up tedious transcriptions of the monitored conversations of Nazi sympathizers. She also infiltrates their ranks as a ‘fifth columnist’. It takes her a while to realize that one of her team is a double agent and even longer to do something about it. The operation leads, more or less accidentally, to two murders.


A decade later, Juliet is a junior producer with children’s radio at the BBC. An anonymous letter threatens consequences from past events. As more of that past is revealed, Transcription acquires increasing hallmarks of a spy thriller, although the author’s sprightly prose means that comedy overtones accompany even death and burials. “They were at a loose end without a funeral tea to go to. Poor Joan didn’t seem entirely dead without a glass of sherry and a slice of Dundee cake to send her across the Styx.


As in Atkinson’s previous novels, the writing is crisp and witty, often aphoristic, with pleasing echoes of the late great Muriel Spark and even Alan Bennett. The ending – and a fascinating Author’s Note – provides a splendid surprise and a resonance with one of history’s greatest spy scandals. Kate Atkinson is without doubt one of our finest current writers.

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