Is there a word for that feeling when you turn the last page of a novel which has kept you utterly enthralled, whose imaginary world feels so real that its sorrows are your sorrows, its joys your joys? Bereft is almost right, but not quite. I know, let's call it Atkinson. No other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson. I look forward to a new Atkinson book like I look forward to Christmas, except another woman gets to wrap up all the surprises. Bliss.
Transcription, Atkinson's 11th novel, takes us back to World War II, the setting of her stupendous Life After Life and its companion novel, A God in Ruins, both of which rightly swept to victory at the Costa Awards.
The war exerts a magnetic pull on Atkinson's imagination mainly, I think, because it was a time of remarkable and revealing flux for the individual. "Only disconnect," Atkinson might gleefully retort to EM Forster's sententious "only connect."
In the Blitz, characters can cast off bourgeois, peacetime, expectations and try on new selves for size. That is literally the case for Juliet Armstrong. The heroine of Transcription is an intensely bright, sardonic, 18-year-old recruited by MI5, shortly after her mother's death, to be a dogsbody in an undercover sting.
Her boss, the mysterious Godfrey Toby, interviews British Nazi sympathisers who are eager to give traitorous information to a man they believe to be a Gestapo agent. The meetings are recorded by microphones embedded in the walls of a room in Dolphin Square and duly typed up by Juliet in the flat next door. What she transcribes is often banal or inaudible so "she had learnt to read between the lines. But wasn't that where the most important things were said?"
Juliet soon makes the transition from secretary to spy. Adopting the nom de guerre of Iris Carter-Jenkins, she is given the task of infiltrating the Right Club of aristocratic fifth columnists. "Iris" is of a higher social class than Juliet, and has inherited diamond earrings and an imaginary fiance, Ian, serving on HMS Hood, of whom Juliet becomes increasingly fond. Forced to make a hasty exit out of the bedroom window of Mrs Scaife, an anti-Semitic Mitford-esque matron, Juliet finds the courage to descend the Virginia Creeper by remembering who she is (or isn't). "Iris was the plucky sort, she reminded herself."
What does it cost Juliet to fake it, to adopt so many identities and allegiances and where might her true self - and loyalties - lie? Like our heroine, we can't ever be sure. "What if there was a greater deception game in play?" Juliet wonders. "What if Godfrey really was a Gestapo agent. A Gestapo agent pretending to be an MI5 agent pretending to be a Gestapo agent. It made her head hurt to think about it."
The story takes place in three different times. At the beginning and the end, we are with the 60-year-old Juliet in 1980, but the bulk of the action takes place during the 1940s, when she is a secret agent, and in 1950, by which time she has a job at the BBC, working as a producer in Schools. (Historical detail is deployed here to rich, often slyly comic, effect. BBC Midlands Region is said to be working "on a kind of agricultural information programme disguised as fiction, a farming Dick Barton, she had heard it described as: who on earth would want to listen to that?")
Then one day, this cosy-as-cocoa wireless world is chilled by an anonymous note warning, "You will pay for what you did." As she tries to track down the perpetrator, eliminating suspects from her wartime past, Juliet finds it increasingly tricky to tell what is truth and what is facsimile.
Atkinson says she got the idea for Transcription from files in the National Archives about a real agent who posed as an undercover Gestapo officer to lure Nazi sympathisers to a bugged room during the phoney war of 1939-40. It was that story's invisible character, the one doing the eavesdropping and the typing ("a girl, obviously"), who really spoke to her.
You can't fault her research, but what lends the novel enchantment is that patented Atkinson double whammy: gravity and levity. Tragedy and comedy are so skilfully entwined that you find yourself snorting with mirth during a prolonged murder, which ends with a corpse and her dog wrapped in a rug on the front seat of a car. I can't think of another serious novelist who makes you laugh so often or so gratefully.
Like her creator, Juliet is preternaturally alert to language and to the foibles of personality. Her observations glitter with astringent wit. The new junior programme assistant, fresh from Cambridge, is "more capable than was strictly necessary". Mrs Scaife "seemed fond of lace, it decorated her substantial hull in many manifestations". What the virginal Juliet hopes will be a romantic outing with her colleague, Perry, turns into a damply deflating debacle worthy of Wodehouse. "'Otters,' he whispered, spreading a tarpaulin sheet on the riverbank."
Perry tells Juliet that "the mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they're on".
Perhaps the biggest clue to Juliet's own hidden loyalties lies in her democratic sympathy for even the most minor characters. Beatrice Dodds, Mrs Scaife's maid who pays with her life for helping "Iris", is "a girl. A nobody. A mouse." Except she isn't, because Juliet - and Atkinson - both notice and revere her.
In Life After Life, the plot device of a woman dying and being endlessly reborn to start over delivered a kick to the heart. It was unforgettably good. Transcription ends with a similarly ingenious twist but, instead of being overwhelmed by emotion, I felt mildly disbelieving and let down. Was this really the heroine we had come to know and love?
While Transcription is not the author's very best, then, it is still undoubtedly an Atkinson. Brimming with dancing dark wit that reminds you how deeply satisfying good fiction can be.
©The Daily Telegraph