Audiobook Review: Transcription

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Confession: I questioned Kate Atkinson for the first half of this audiobook.  While the story was interesting, it did not sweep me off my feet like Life After Life, nor did it brood with the same intensity as A God In Ruins.  I thought to myself, “well, she can’t win them all,” and I continued to listen with a shrug.

Then the 2nd half of the book came careening around the corner, and I was completely caught by surprise.  By the end of the story, I was utterly slack-jawed.  I didn’t want it to end.  That couldn’t be it.  I hung on to Atkinson’s afterthoughts in the epilogue, and when the end credits began, I just sat in my car.  Staring.  Waiting.  Dammit – it’s over?

Transcription is the quiet WWII espionage story of Juliet Armstrong, who, at the ripe old age of 18, is recruited to work for MI5, U.K.’s intelligence agency.  She is tasked with recording the conversations of British Fascist sympathizers from the apartment next door.  There’s a lengthy list of characters, good and bad.  Juliet assumes a second identity.  It all seems rather lackluster, and her transcription duties appear to be mundane and downright tedious.  The endless detail that’s provided during this part of the novel may drive you to distraction.  Don’t let it.  The devil is in the details.

Then you are catapulted to 10 years after the war when Juliet is working for the BBC.  This new career path also seems exhausting, as Juliet plods along, post spy.  When the past suddenly starts to haunt her, you think…. wait a minute.  She hardly did anything during her transcription days.  Who could possibly be threatening her now? 

This is when the novel takes off.

The story then moves back and forth between then and now: spy days vs. BBC days.  Some of these transitions can be jolting, but it all comes together in a surprisingly tidy fashion.  I can’t offer any more information about either timeline, because I don’t want to ruin the story for you.

What Kate Atkinson proves once again is that she is one of the most gorgeous writers ever to grace the page.  I adore her words; they’re like listening to silk.  Her descriptive passages paint extraordinary pictures, and I spent most of the book wishing that I was sitting in a London café.  (Preferably with a cup of tea and biscuits.)  It’s this unassuming literary brilliance that simmers beneath Atkinson’s stories that always seems to catch me off guard.  It’s like someone whispering quietly in your ear, but they’re actually sharing something that’s going to startle the hell out of you.  If someone asked me to describe this novel in a single word, that word would be cagey.

This audiobook was narrated by Fenella Woolgar, and she’s absolutely perfect.  She convincingly becomes every character, and her range of voices and emotions add incredible depth to the story.  I’m happy that I chose the audiobook of Transcription over the printed version, and definitely recommend Woolgar’s beautiful reading.