Oh Kate Atkinson! The master of literary coincidence!
There is somethiing about Atkinson: I adore her writing style and love her books – both the very literary crime fiction of ex-policeman Jackson Brodie, and the more explicitly literary novels like Life After Life – but they need time to digest and ruminate on. And clearly time to write: there was two years between Case Histories and One Good Turn, another two years between One Good Turn and this novel. The most recent addition, Blue Sky, was released in 2019, nine years after Started Early, Took my Dog. And goodness, she has fun with titles, too, doesn’t she?
And fun is what blossoms in these novels, despite the horrors that they include. Atkisnons revels in the fun that chapter titles can generate, here including Saits House (Chapter Eight), Adam Lay Ybounden (Chapter Fourteen), Fiat Lux (Chapter Twenty-Three) La Regie de jeu (Chapter Thirty Six). And my favourite, The Life and Adventures of Reggie Chase, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Chase Family – otherwise known as, somewhat more prosaically Chapter Three.
And, as always, the joy of coincidence: as with One Good Turn, Atkinson layers coincidence upon coincidence upon coincidence. And the coincidental nature of the various events is commented upon by characters, specifically Brodie himself who says
A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen
What is the explanation behind them all? Perhaps that Atkinson’s novels are so highly literate that her own characters are almost aware that they are in a novel.
And let’s turn to the characters. Brodie returns as the gruff avuncular ex-detective but now separated from Julia – good riddance, didn’t like her – and married unexpectedly to Tessa, a woman who never appears in the novel. He is haunted by lost women, is Jackson Brodie: Julia and Tessa; his first wife, Josie; his daughter, Marlee; his sister Niamh; even Louise Monroe. And Louise does return in this novel – hurray! I loved her! – equally surprisingly, but perhaps no less happily, married after the faltering romance / infatuation between them in One Good Turn. Chief Inspector, and no doubt handing out proper cards, not the ones with the Chief appended in pen. Our third protagonist was also a delight: Reggie Chase. Orphan of the parish, intellectual and loyal and kind and desperate to be part of a family. A lesser writer would have put the three of them together by the end of the novel – I sort of wanted Atkinson to – but it would have been far too twee.
The novel opens with the past: thirty years in the past. As Joanna, a six-year old girl, is enjoying a family picnic with her mother, sister, baby brother and dog – and Atkinson’s style gives in an immaculately, unobtrusive way a wealth of background history.
Their father was called Howard Mason and their mother’s name was Gabrielle. Sometimes people got excited and smiled at their father and said, ‘Are you the Howard Mason?’ (Or sometimes, not smiling, ‘that Howard Mason’ which was different although Joanna wasn’t sure how.)
‘You smell of soot,’ their father said to their mother. ‘And cabbage and milk.’
‘And you smell of failure,’ their mother said.
Their mother used to smell of all kinds of interesting things, paint and turpentine and tobacco and the Je Reviens perfume that their father had been buying for her since she was seventeen years old and ‘a Catholic schoolgirl’, and which meant ‘I will return’ and was a message to her. Their mother was ‘a beauty’ according to their father but their mother said she was ‘a painter’, although she hadn’t painted anything since they moved to Devon. ‘No room for two creative talents in a marriage,’ she said…
So much revealed in so few words. The awful comment, even when Joanna’s father went to live with his other woman, that “Although now there was only one person in the marriage, their mother still didn’t paint.” says so much about the hurt and damage caused by the family breakup.
Horrifically, before the end of this chapter, the whole family (including the dog) are massacred by Andrew Decker with a knife which – as a reader who grew up in Kent in the 1990s – had chilling echoes of Andrew Stone’s murder of the Russell family. Joanna was the only survivor because she fled, obeying her mother’s final order to “Run, Joanna, run.”
Thirty years later, Joanna is now a doctor in Edinburgh, married to Neil Hunter a “natural born entrepreneur”, and employing Reggie Chase as a mother’s help, and Louise Monroe has to bring her the news that Decker had been released from custody having served his sentence.
And as for Brodie, having left Edinburgh in One Good Turn with the news that his partner was pregnant with another man’s child, we see somewhere near Darlington watching a two years and three month old boy, Nathan. His intention is to steal a sample of hair from Nathan to confirm whether or not he was his child before returning to Tessa in London. A journey that was far more difficult than it sounds thanks to a faulty GPS, taking the scenic route over the hills, an argumentative sheep, a prophetic pedestrian who tells him “You’re going the wrong way”, and taking the northbound rather than southbound train.
Coincidentally, the train that would take him back to Edinburgh; the train that would crash outside the house where Reggie Chase was staying; the crash in which various identity papers became swapped around; the crash which Reggie Chase rushes to the scene of, keeping none other than Jackson Brodie alive until the paramedics attend. In the hands of any other writer, I would have been rolling my eyes; in the hands of Atkinson, I am smiling wryly at the thought of the shared joke.
From there, things that may or may not be crimes appear – Neil Hunter’s businesses seem to have a habit of burning down; Joanna Hunter goes missing, with the baby; a victim of another horrific family massacre is holed up, terrified, in a safe house. And our detectives by trade or by inclination – Louise, Brodie, Reggie – start to investigate.
The novel, however, subverts almost all genre conventions: whilst there is a fairly neat and a satisfying conclusion, it is the characterisation rather than the plot that dominates Atkinson’s writing. Vivid, powerful, wholly credible and flawed. These are like nothing from a typical detective novel: Louise’s marriage and the cracks beneath the surface of it, the simmering aggressive resentment at her husband’s ex-wife Samantha and his higher class family is as wonderful and potent as the fate of Dr Hunter.
The first Mrs de Winter, Samantha, had been the green-fingered type. ‘Sweet peas, tomatoes, hanging baskets, she loved the garden,’ Patrick said. She could identify a shrub at a hundred paces, presumably. The Good Wife.
The deeply literary allusions that abound throughout the novel which never come across as pretentious and are never obtrusive but inform the whole of it are fabulous. I probably only recognised the most obvious (Mrs Dalloway, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and a few more) but again it is Atkinson unashamedly eschewing the dialogue tropes of most detective fiction. Unashamedly literary. In a way that enriches rather than detracts from the prose.
The series had a slightly shaky start, I think with Case Histories compared to both One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News – but that first novel is still great, I am just comparing it to two exceptional novels! There has not been a foot set wrong in these and I am left hoping that the remaining novels are just as powerful.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Black Swan
Date: 2nd January 2009