The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.