23 Nov / Transcription by Kate Atkinson [in Booklist]
So transforming was Fenella Woolgar’s performance of Kate Atkinson’s stupendous Life after Life (2013), the immediate reaction here is joyful relief at hearing Woolgar take aural control of another Atkinson novel. From an inexperienced, untested teenager embarking on her first job, in 1940, to a sharp, seasoned (rare) career woman in the 1950s and beyond, protagonist Juliet Armstrong is wholly embodied by Woolgar with unfaltering crispness and empathic composure. Atkinson’s broad cast of intriguing characters demands quick changes of gender, age, station, and regional and international accents, all of which Woolgar facilely adapts to with seamless ease.
Initially hired as a glorified secretary to transcribe covert conversations between British intelligence officers and Fascist sympathizers, Juliet quickly transforms into someone else for the first of many times as her life in MI5 takes her off the page and into the risky world of wartime espionage. Postwar, Juliet is a producer with the BBC – effective and efficient at telling other people’s stories – but her clandestine past proves inescapable, and she must answer for her choices then with intractable consequences decades later. From Juliet’s chaste sort-of fiancé, her various handlers, and the posh Nazi-wannabe to the abrasive young office manager and so many others, Woolgar’s superb narration amplifies Atkinson’s gorgeous, droll, affecting, surprisingly twisty-turny epic novel.