Review: Kate Atkinson, Manchester Literature Festival
I’m a binge-reader. I used to be someone who hovered over books slowly, drinking them in, pondering, possibly having a really good sniff of the spine. I still do all that, I still love the heft of a good hardback, but there’s much less dilly-dallying, far less mulling and prevaricating. Today, I snatch up that freshly-pressed tome, pull it greedily to my chest, and devour it like a woman possessed. Or, if I’m being entirely honest, I’m someone who loves, loves books and treats authors like gods. And, as far as this obsession goes, my incessant insomnia is a glass half-full.
And so when Kate Atkinson’s latest novel was published, I didn’t faff about. I bought that glorious hardback and eschewed all external distractions. Cats – you want to be fed? I’ll get round to those tins of indiscriminate meat in a minute. Editors? Give me a moment, I’m housebound with an undiagnosable ailment.
Perhaps there’s a smidge of hyperbole here. Maybe. But I do regard a new Kate Atkinson book as a moment to be savoured. I read a lot of so-so novels, and that’s time I can never have back. There’s something deeply reassuring about a new publication from an author you love. And so I read Transcription, but, in the same way I might purposely defer a hug from my niece or a chippy tea, I left it on the floor of my bedroom for a few weeks, watching it, regarding it, waiting for it.
Until I could bear the weight of its presence no more, I scooped it up and read the beggar. Then, then, I could breathe. Thank god, it was wonderful. And this knowledge made Manchester Literature Festival‘s Kate Atkinson in Conversation entirely more enjoyable.
Atkinson was smaller and slighter than I’d imagined. But perhaps it’s not fair to judge given that she and host Alex Clark were on the stage of the Royal Exchange which, on any other day, played host to the theatre’s production of Death of a Salesman. It’s a relatively small theatre-in-the-round but not your usual author-meets-audience space.
All I wanted – and I suspect all the audience wanted – was to hear how Atkinson writes, how she comes up with her characters, how those devilishly brilliant plotlines are devised, as well as some inside information on her latest book. We were mostly rewarded with our desires but, despite the talent sitting in front of her, Clark seemed to lack a structure with her questions. She’d obviously read Atkinson’s books, and was up to speed on Transcription, but it was all a bit bitty and haphazard, and she had no tangible plan for what should have been an hour and 15 minutes event replete with multiple inquiries and comments. And while I’m all for authors reading excerpts from their work, Atkinson’s reading took some considerable time (there’s an audiobook for that), and whenever Clark seemed lost for words, she returned to Transcription which had already been thoroughly picked over.
Nevertheless, there were still some gems to be had from Atkinson. Without wishing to give too much away, she divulged the genesis for Transcription (the release of papers from the National Archives), and the people on which her novel is based. As Atkinson readers have come to expect, there are divergent timelines and unreliable narrators but, at its heart, the book is set in London during the Phoney War, mostly in 1940. There is exquisite comedy, pathos, turmoil and grief, but it is never less than perfectly written.
In addition, she talked about her previous novels, not least the popular detective series based around Jackson Brodie. Fans will be pleased to hear that Brodie returns in 2019. And, thinking back to the book that put Atkinson on the map – Behind the Scenes at the Museum (winner of the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year) – Atkinson admitted that she’s never been comfortable with fame and, now, doesn’t allow her publishers to submit her novels to literature awards.
Which, of course, just makes me love her even more. If you have yet to read A God in Ruins, Life After Life, or Transcription, go and do that. Do that now.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.