About a novel rife with references to Shakespeare, it’s probably fair to begin with Hamlet’s well-worn “All the world’s a stage.” And virtually all the people in the book are certainly players, donning and shedding identities throughout in service of the plot: spying England’s way through World War II. First among them is Juliet Armstrong, a poor, bright young woman, an orphan like so many plucky heroines in adventure tales.

In 1940, at 18, Juliet is tapped to work for MI5, Britain’s secret service, operating, ironically enough, out of a prison emptied of inmates. Shortly, she is drafted to transcribe recordings of a British agent, Godfrey, meeting Fifth Columnists, or Nazi sympathizers, who believe they’re meeting an agent of the Gestapo. Soon enough, Juliet herself is acting in the drama being staged to thwart the traitors in their midst.

This, and all that happened as the war and the MI5 subterfuge escalated, is viewed from the vantage point of 1950, with Juliet now at BBC Schools, a producer of somewhat comically educational radio plays, and running “an occasional safe house” for assets being moved by MI5. When she spots Godfrey on the street and he refuses to recognize her — although “together they had committed a hideous act, the kind of thing that binds you to someone forever” — we are drawn back to that time, carrying that “hideous act” as a sort of novelistic promissory note.

Shuttling back and forth in time, now and then issuing such dramatic currency (“ ‘Hum-drum’ was the very last word that could be used to describe the horror of what happened next”), Kate Atkinson’s “Transcription” presents us with a world in which nothing is what it seems (“Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”) and where the war trumps all (“There was a greater slaughter than Dolly’s to deal with”) but isn’t quite real (“How could people be at war in such weather?”).

The narration is as self-conscious in its staginess as Juliet’s BBC productions. “It was rather like a farce,” Juliet thinks at one point. “And my place in the plot?” she wonders at another. Or, “Perhaps I’m trapped in some awful radio drama.” A murder is “Grand Guignol.” And “ ‘It’s all a front, darling.’ But then wasn’t everything?”

But even though the narrative voice, approximating Juliet’s point of view, is hedged with parentheticals, contradicting, commenting, correcting — “Did it matter what one had believed, what one had done? (Yes!)” — it’s hard to accept the last deception the novel reveals.

Atkinson, whose novel “Life After Life” played so subtly with the notion of life’s infinite possibilities — or a person’s infinitely possible selves — here comes back again and again to the story of Daedalus, designer of the minotaur’s labyrinth and father of Icarus, who “of course had flown too high and fallen. It was the perfect plot. In some ways it was the only plot.”

“Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation,” the book’s most powerful manipulator finally says. “We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.”And yet, of course, we are.


Ellen Akins is a novelist and a teacher of writing. She lives in Wisconsin.

By: Kate Atkinson.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 339 pages, $28