What I’ve Been Reading – A Kate Atkinson Special!

In eager anticipation of Kate Atkinson’s long awaited new Jackson Brodie book, I’ve been binge-reading her backlist and as a result, she has now firmly established herself as my favourite author ever.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is her first book, and the first of hers that I encountered (this is about my fifth reading)! All of the recurring themes in future books are there: dark almost black comedy; multiple strands of narrative; jumping backwards and forwards in time; and ancestry. Heritage is a key theme in this novel – how it shapes us, and yet paradoxically how our personal history is a result of the whims of fate – and this might sound a bit odd, but basically, there’s a very strong affinity between this story and Frank Capra’s film, It’s A Wonderful Life. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing schmucky in Atkinson’s story, but like all her other books, she plays with genre, and so subverts our expectations, so we think we’re off down one path but in fact we’re off on another (Life After Life being a prime example of this).

Ruby, our guide and key narrator in this book, is the youngest in her family, the daughter left on the fringes, whose mother seems to view her at best as an afterthought, at worst as some sort of usurper (why, why, why – there is a reason!). There are some brilliant, hilarious set pieces in Ruby’s life, not least her description of the memorable family holiday in the Highlands, that I would love to see on screen, though I can’t imagine a film being able to cope with the multiple narrative strands at play here, and without them – nah, scrub that idea. Ruby’s story is punctuated by lots of other family histories, the kind of tales that real family historians would utterly love to uncover – if only they were true – are they true? (Another of Atkinson’s trade marks, presenting you with a story that you really want to believe but you’re not quite sure if you can trust).

So, why read this? Firstly it’s hilarious. Secondly it’s clever and witty. Thirdly, Ruby’s story and her family relationships are intriguing and sad and will strike many, many chords. Fourthly, it’s got a bit of social history really well told (more recurring themes, the bomber one, for example, in Life After Life). And finally, it’s just a brilliant, page-turning read.

Human Croquet is another of Atkinson’s earlier books, and one where she plays about more openly with the concept of time, experimenting with ideas that become central to future stories. I like it, it’s funny and playful, but I know that a lot of readers have found it infuriating, or have disliked being deliberately misled.

Isobel is our narrator, a sixteen year old who is obsessed with the mother who abandoned her and her brother Charles. She’s at that age where a ‘real’ mother such as she imagines Eliza to have been, would have radically altered her life – advised her on clothes and hair and on parties, have made her popular, have made her ‘interesting’. Nonsense of course, but pretty ‘normal’ behaviour for sixteen year old girls – how many fantasise, for example, that they have been kidnapped into the wrong family? How many girls that age fell as if they really ‘fit’ – not even the popular ones, I’ll bet. So Atkinson tells us up front that we have a very unreliable narrator – take heed, she warns us, you are going to find it difficult to tell the difference between Isobel’s fantasies and what is ‘real’ – if there is ever such a thing as ‘real’ in the worlds Atkinson creates. And as it turns out (without spoiling it) there is actually a ‘real’ reason for Isobel’s unreliableness.

As ever with Atkinson, this is at heart a really, really good story. What happened to Eliza? Where did Eliza come from? And what on earth is going on with Debbie, the stepmother, or poor Audrey, daughter of a nasty piece of work who beats his wife to pulp? And why has Isobel suddenly acquired the ability to travel through time (yes, that too)? You know, some of this matters and some of it doesn’t. It’s a story. It is always conscious of itself as a story (surely, Isobel, thinks, time travel should be limited to only one event per chapter – there are clues like this all over the place). Atkinson is making stuff up!!!! And she does it in such a very, very funny way. This is a story about being in a novel, in a way, but it’s also a story about being inside the head of a 16 year old girl, and it’s also a story about how we deal with reality by escaping – into imagined lives or into fiction. Not for everyone, I get that. But for me – I just can’t get enough.

Transcription is the third in a more recent ‘series’ dealing with World War II (the others are Life after Life and A God in Ruins, both of which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads). I loved it, loved it, loved it. And having raced to then end, I wanted to start again straight away to see if I could pick up more clues to the ending.

But I haven’t, not yet, so here are my first-reading thoughts. I loved it. Oh yes, I said that. Okay, with every Kate Atkinson, you’re on your guard about the time line – and I’m not going to say whether you need to be with this one or not. This is, as all her books are at heart, a brilliant, page-turner of a story. Is it a real story or an invented one? Is Juliet all she seems – well, it’s not giving anything away to say the answer to this is no. So what can I say without giving away too much? Juliet works for MI5 during the war. She’s one of the ‘girls’ who type – transcribe in her case – but who have the potential to be so much, much more. Intelligent, educated, sharp, ruthless – they are equally ruthlessly exploited, either as domestic drudges – the ones who make the tea and clear up the blood – or as something more sinister. Which category is Juliet in?

One of the things about Atkinson’s writing that I’ve noticed a few readers complaining about is that she leaves so many things unanswered. She expects huge amounts from her readers. She expects them to surmise and deduce. I totally love that about her. Transcription is a brilliant story based (fascinatingly, according to the author’s note at the back) on a mishmash of true stories. Juliet is presented to us as a straight as a die jolly hockey sticks lass doing her bit – when of course she’s anything but. There’s a brilliant, darkly comic cast. And there’s a brilliant twisty turny story. And it’s brilliantly written. Please go and read it. Even if you’ve never read any Atkinson, or even if you’ve been put off before, read this one. It’s just fab.

Emotionally Weird is, I think, Atkinson’s third book, and once more it was a third or fourth re-read for me.

I came across Jacque Derrida, Michel Foucault and all the post-modernist decostructionist gang while studying history at the OU. I’m not a dummy, but NOTHING they said made any sense to me. I am so pleased to see that I’m not the only one. You don’t have to have studied post-modernism to appreciate this novel, but I think it will help. And now I’ve made it sound like a piece of intellectual snobbery, and it is soooo not. It’s easy to mock post-modernism, but Kate Atkinson makes it really, really funny.

Basically, this is a comic novel about a comic novel. It is also a very odd, very clever, very funny and, in my reading experience, unique novel. There are lots of elements in it that Atkinson used previously and returns to, not least the mucking about with time thing (to put it very un-eloquently) and a huge dollop of false narrative, but she takes both to extremes here. We have Effie narrating her university days while she’s recovering on a remote island with the woman she’d thought was her mother, who is narrating Effie’s history, and in between we have snippets of Effie’s crime novel and various other people’s novels. Which are real? Any or none? Good question. This is a self-referential novel, there’s a few points where Effie or Nora (her mother – or is she?) speak directly to the reader – don’t kill her, you can’t kill characters in a comic novel, kind of thing – but again to describe it as self-referential makes it sound tedious and up itself and it’s not.

So what is it? A story, like her previous two (Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet) about adolescence, and about perception – how events can be interpreted and re-interpreted. It is about the fantasies we have as teenagers when we don’t like our lives, of the lives we could be living or might have had. It’s a far better take on 1970s redbrick universities than The History Man, in my view, and it’s a really excellent evocation of the ‘rebel’ 1970s when being a rebel meant protesting about anything and everything, having a poster of Che Guevara and wearing an afghan coat, but not actually doing much more than waving banners and protesting – and not protesting about the stuff that was actually affecting your day-to-day life. The three day weeks seems to have passed the students in this book by, for example. But it’s not a nasty, mocking look at this – it’s sharply witty, thought it’s also understanding, ironic but not sarcastic. I loved it – bet you didn’t see that coming! I can see it wouldn’t be for everyone, but it was most definitely for me.

And with that, I finished re-reading my way through Ms Atkinson’s back catalogue (you can read my reviews of the other Jackson Brodie books here). Then I waited. And waited. And waited. For the new Jackson Brodie. And finally, Big Sky arrived. I rarely buy fiction in hardback, but I’ve been waiting for Jackson Brodie’s comeback for so long I had to have this one as soon as it came out. And I was always going to love it, whatever the story. But the story was so fabulous, I LOVED it!

You don’t have to have come across Jackson before to enjoy this, but it’s much better if you have, because Kate Atkinson has such fun playing with his past and re-using past characters. What I love about the Brodie stories is that they are dark, dark, dark but also incredibly funny. This one has more of a crime element in it than usual, with modern slavery at the centre of the story, paired with child abuse. Atkinson takes the Savile scandal and the fallout from Operation Yewtree, and builds that into the core of her story, so that at times you feel you’re actually reading about a real case, because she mixes up so many fictional and historical elements. It makes for difficult reading at times, and you are more than ready for the light relief comedic moments (and there’s lots), but it’s brilliantly done, and without being overtly political, is – well, overtly political, I suppose. And in fact, there’s a very, very overtly political message when good old Brexit rears it’s ugly head – and thankfully, Kate and I are on the same page there!

So what about the eponymous Jackson? He’s older, he’s trying to be wiser, but he’s still cursed. Nathan, his son is back in his life, but for much of the book his daughter is absent. Julia is also back in, but (and I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it) Louise, the one that got away, is still beyond reach. Jackson, in his usual style, manages to run off, Graduate-style, with a bride, fall off a cliff while trying to prevent a suicide, and fail, quite a few times, to do the detecting he’s being employed to focus on while doing detecting he’s not being employed to detect. Reggie, who saved his life when he was in a train crash in the last book, reappears in his life, and there’s a galaxy of colourful, bathetic characters, including a drag queen, an utterly repellent stand up comedian who bears a very close resemblance to Bernard Manning, and a little girl with a unicorn rucksack whose fate is never revealed. That’s the thing people don’t like about Atkinson, that she doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions she asks, and while in this book she does a lot more in a lighting round up at the end that would be the one thing I’m still not sure about, she still leaves lots more unsolved mysteries – I do hope for the next book.

I loved this, just in case I haven’t made it clear enough. I loved the many inter-woven stories, I loved the cast, I loved the contrast of dark and light, of horrific crimes and the unorthodox way they were solved and/or justice was eked out. And I love Jackson with a big love. Principled but bemused. A straight arrow in a world bent out of shape. Please let there be another one soon. And please let Louise be in it.

You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads. If you’ve ready any or all of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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