Alice O’Keeffe, Books Editor at The Bookseller, said: “Our shortlists this year took the judges from Georgian London to the Second World War to contemporary New York. There are books from exciting fresh voices at the very start of their career, contrasted with books from with well-established brand authors at the top of their game. These are the books that sum up 2018 but which, we think, will be read for years to come.”
With its depictions of trilby-wearing fake Gestapo agents and ice-cool femmes fatales, Atkinson’s spy novel seems to both salute and mock the genre... It results in a wry, enjoyable thriller, with its warning that the lies we tell about ourselves have consequences.
My book of the year! Transcription, a tale of spies and double agents, set during the early days of World War II and in the 50s, has a fascinating heroine and one of the best endings that I've read in recent years.
...Atkinson has taken as her heroine a typist with an abundance of personality... Although she doesn't think much of her boss Perry's reasons for finding her invaluable – "No one makes as good a pot of tea as you do, Miss Armstrong" – she is eventually given a more exciting undercover role... Atkinson's recent novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, also focused on the Second World War, but they were massive, chronologically complex books that made hay with notions of genre and reality. Transcription is something of a bagatelle in comparison, being relatively unambitious. Fiction is slightly too much in the service of fact here, too: in attempting to devise a plot that can encompass all the real-life stories she wants to tell, Atkinson leaves her workings too visible. The rather patchy plot will be forgotten a few minutes after you've finished reading; what matters are the individual scenes and phrases that stay in the mind. If this is one of her minor works, how vehemently most novelists will wish to produce a masterpiece as good.
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...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.
Atkinson marvelously captures the sheltered, insouciant Juliet’s longing for experience: “Her éducation sexuelle (it was easier to think of it as something French) was woefully riddled with lacunae. They had drawn diagrams to show the domestic plumbing system at school in Housecraft... (but) The deeper problem in the last half of “Transcription” lies with Juliet. Beguiling as an excitable ingénue, she becomes cipherlike as the book progresses. Her actions seem unintelligible at times, her plucky asides almost perversely frivolous in the face of serious events.
Transcription is...relatively unambitious. Fiction is slightly too much in the service of fact here, too: in attempting to devise a plot that can encompass all the real-life stories she wants to tell, Atkinson leaves her workings too visible. But the plot will be forgotten a few minutes after you’ve finished reading; what matters are the individual scenes and phrases that stay in the mind. If this is one of her minor works, how vehemently most novelists will wish to produce a masterpiece as good.
Transcription stands alongside its immediate predecessors as a fine example of Atkinson’s mature work; an unapologetic novel of ideas, which is also wise, funny and paced like a spy thriller. While it may lack the emotional sucker punch of A God in Ruins, Transcription exerts a gentler pull on the emotions, offering at the end a glimmer of hope, even as it asks us to consider again our recent history and the price of our individual and collective choices.
...the execution is a disappointment. Suspense is crudely built... Worst of all, the twist, when it comes, relies on information about Juliet that has been artificially hidden from the reader... Withholding key biographical material for the sake of a reveal feels like a basic betrayal of the contract between writer and reader. Atkinson has been praised as a novelist who “bridges the gap between commercial and literary fiction”. But Transcription might well please neither camp.
There are plenty of twists and turns in this terrific page-turner, some shocking moments and a narrator whom the author encourages us to love. Juliet is awfully like her creator: addicted to wordplay and asides, funny and self-sufficient, perhaps slightly impatient with having to stay the other side of a wall. But writing a novel is like a form of deep cover, and perhaps Atkinson is like the spy in this one, whose handler says admiringly “the mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they’re on”. You’ll be kept guessing until the end.
...full of a clever restless energy that pokes away at the pointlessness of being alive while also making wry jokes about cups of tea... I have never read a book of hers that I didn’t like — and rarely a page that did not combine a transporting detail with wry detachment. This quality of unsentimental tenderness is hers alone. And so I give you the bad news when I say that Transcription is not her best, and the good news when I say it is still a Kate Atkinson.
There are not too many authors who appeal to both commercial and literary fiction readerships, and thus sellby the shedload, but Kate Atkinson is one... As ever, Atkinson's supremely clever plotting is a joy, as is Juliet's wry and sometimes sardonic inner commentary.