In Brief: Kate Atkinson, Transcription

transcriptionI wasn’t looking forward to Transcription with quite as much enthusiasm of some readers I know, as my own history with Atkinson is a bit mixed. But I know her to be an excellent story teller, with smooth fast-paced prose and an eye for vivid detail and an ear for good dialogue, and the reason I have quibbled with some of her recent books is because I have found them interesting enough to take seriously and ultimately quarrel with.

So I began Transcription with reasonably high expectations–and, overall, I was disappointed. It is slick and snappy and well-researched and reasonably clever, but it didn’t strike me as going deep about anything, from its main character to the potentially profound themes spy fiction engages. Perhaps if I hadn’t finally started reading John Le Carré this year this last point would not have struck me so hard! The fixation on being clever that (for me) undermined A God in Ruins has taken over in Transcription, while the rich, tender humanity that made A God in Ruins so engrossing right until the end is entirely missing.

Transcription is clever, by which I mean deftly plotted–but even here it didn’t quite win me over, because the Big Twist™ (which seems, with Atkinson, to be becoming paradoxically predictable as a move) was not cleverly disguised, just withheld. It’s no great feat to simply spring something on your readers at the end! (And perhaps if I hadn’t just finished going through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with my class and showing all the places where in fact you could have discerned the truth from early on if  you were really being suspicious enough, then this point would not have been so clear to me in its turn.) I found Transcription a diverting read, don’t get me wrong. But unlike both Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which were both so nearly so very, very good that I found their flaws greatly provoking, now that I’ve finished Transcription I can’t gin up enough interest in it to go into any more detail about it.

4 thoughts on “In Brief: Kate Atkinson, Transcription

  1. banff1972 October 21, 2018 / 6:34 pm

    Just picked up the audiobook from the library. Was already skeptical about the book (having been less taken by God in Ruins than you were, though I did like Life after Life), and now I’m wondering if I should even bother. Maybe I should read Le Carre instead. Little Drummer Girl looks particularly appealing. (PS I love how even in this short review you give us a sense of how your teaching informs your “ordinary” reading–lovely!)


  2. Rohan Maitzen October 21, 2018 / 9:24 pm

    Well, there’s always the possibility that you will like it more than I did – or that it will be a really good audiobook, at least for entertainment. YMMV etc. But in case you do decide to go for Le Carre, I’m just a beginner myself but for me, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold proved a really good entry point.

    I bet you also find that your work reading and your other reading ooze into each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. I’m not really an Agatha Christie fan, but she is truly ingenious in Ackroyd!


    • banff1972 October 21, 2018 / 10:26 pm

      Some books are better on audio than in print, I find. (And vice versa of course.) That’s really helpful to know re: Le Carre. I’m a bit daunted by that huge output, so I will try Spy first.

      It’s probably been 30 years since I read Ackroyd. Probably time for a re-read. In fact, I think I will check if my library has it on audio…


  3. Teresa October 22, 2018 / 6:16 pm

    I enjoyed this one more than you did, but mostly as a very skillfully executed diversion. But since that’s the level on which I enjoyed it, the details haven’t stuck with me as well as they might have if it were more complex and required more wrestling. I did think she cheated with one big twist, but the other one (maybe the main one?) didn’t bother me so much.


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