Book Review: Big Sky, Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie has relocated to a quiet seaside village in North Yorkshire, in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son Nathan and ageing Labrador Dido, both at the discretion of his former partner Julia. It’s a picturesque setting, but there’s something darker lurking behind the scenes.

Jackson’s current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband for his suspicious wife, seems straightforward, but a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network―and back into the path of someone from his past. Old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking new novel, both sharply funny and achingly sad, by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today.

Finding Jackson Brodie at the heart of this melee seemed par for the course, somehow. He was a friend to anarchy.

I adore this series of books so much, even though the first one, Case Histories had not grabbed me immediately. A good example of a series that was worth persevering with! SO worth persevering with! Big Sky has been sat waiting on my tbr as I catch up with the earlier novels in the series – and this is a series that warrants reading in order because the characters grow and develop and recur within the series.

Jackson remains as a private detective trailing an errant husband and an online groomer and, as often happens, he becomes embroiled in a larger story, a story that he remains almost half unaware of. On this occasion, it is the deeply unsettling and murky world of organised child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

We are thrust into a seaside town in the north-east of England near Scarborough, Whitby, Bridlington – an area that I used to live in which is always a nice reading experience. Whilst there, he is able to collate increasing dossiers of evidence on the aforementioned husband, Gary, on behalf of his wife Penny Trotter, whilst remaining close enough to his erstwhile wife Julia to have their son Nathan – now a 13 year-old – to stay, along Julia’s dog Dido. That seaside locale is great for Atkinson’s signature commingling of past and present, truth and fiction: like many such places, it caters to the masses of tourists with attractions and stage shows and this novel focuses on two: an eighties revival of the comedian Barclay Jack at the Palace Theatre, and Transylvania World, a celebration of Dracula’s arrival in England at Whitby.

Within this scene, we have a range of investigations, over and above Brodie’s errant husband. Reggie Chase – oh! Reggie Chase! – returns from When Will There Be Good News?, now a police detective in her own right. Along with her colleague, Ronnie Dibicki, she is investigating a series of child sexual exploitation from the eighties as an infamous case in the town identified two prominent businessmen,

Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, local ‘worthies’ – one of them was in jail and the other one had topped himself

Michael Carmody, the on in jail, is threatening to identify a third key member of their so-called Magic Circle. A woman is found brutally murdered, Wendy Easton. A triumvirate of sinister businessmen and profesisonals, Tommy Holroyd, Andy Bragg and Stephen Mellors import underage and vulnerable girls from abroad for the sex trafficking industry. This being Atkinson, of course these are all connected – both to each other and to Jackson Brodie.

This also being Atkinson, we don’t see the whole picture very quickly or readily: although our point of view shifts between characters, we generally only see the peripheral characters: Crystal, Tommy Holroyd’s wife who is hiding her own dark past and history; Vincent Ives, Wendy Easton’s soon-to-be-ex husband and golfing buddies with Tommy and Andy; and of course the detectives, Jackson, Chase and Dibicki.

Atkinson is an absolute master of characterisation. In a single phrase she can conjure up an entire person making the vast array of characters vivid and convincing. When Vince ruminates on friendship he says that

There were different categories of friends in Vince’s opinion. Golf friends, work friends, old school friends, shipboard friends (he’d been on a Mediterranean cruise a few years ago with Wendy, his about-to-be-ex-wife), but friend friends were harder to come by.

And suddenly his isolation, his alienation from others, his yearning to belong but failure to do so is palpable and vivid.

Nor does Atkinson fail to play with the tropes of the genre and the reader’s expectations. Her characters regularly comment on what they might have done had they been in, say, a detective novel! And this is, of course, helped by his wife Julia’s role as pathologist in the TV Detective Show Collier so that

The guy who played Collier was always pumping him for information about how a ‘real’ detective would behave and then not taking the advice.

Or how they might make a run for the border “like a man in a book or a film” – even if they only get as far as Whitby.

But beneath all the playfulness and the intricacy of the plotting, beneath the delicate juxtaposition of the genuinely humorous and the horrific, Atkinson writes with great humanity and warmth about her characters. Brodie, whilst gruff and cycnical at times, with the cliche of the fictional detective the tortured past, his empathy for everyone around him – especially women and young girls following the death by cancer of his mother, the rape and murder of his sister – and his deep love for his son, Nathan are tangible. Julia has done some terrible things to Jackson and yet their co-parenting of Nathan and they friendship is deeply affecting and we as the reader do perhaps share Jackson’s tentative hope for a future.

There is, perhaps a touch of revisiting old themes in the novel’s conclusion: the truth of that climax is, like the truth of the conclusion of When Will There Be Good News? is wrapped up into a convincing-enough narrative that serves justice, if not truth. And the novel seems to suddenly unspool in the final chapters as Atkinson brings every thread together. It is, perhaps, deliberate that the usual focus, the unveiling of Wendy’s murderer is dismissed in half a page, whereas she bookends the novel with the image of Jackson in a new suit with a woman in a bridal dress and bouquet at Rosedale Chimney Bank – a real and gorgeous place – and the real reveal of the novel is the identity of that woman rather than of any murderer. Jackson says that

It demanded poetry, a thought he voiced out loud, and she said, ‘No, I don’t think so. It’s enough in itself.’

And the same can be said of the novel itself: it demands all the plaudits and poetry, but it is “enough in itself” and calls more just to be read and enjoyed.

What I Liked

  • Atkinson’s warm and deep characterisation.
  • The sharp, wry but warm humour that suffuses the novel and balances wonderfully its very dark themes.
  • The intricacy of the plotting, weaving multiple investigations together, both contemporary and historic.
  • Atkinson’s deep humanity.

What Could Have Been Different

  • The conclusion could have been a little more slowly explored.

Ratings:

Overall:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

368 pages

Publisher:

Doubleday

Date:

18th June 2018

Links:

Amazon, Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Big Sky, Kate Atkinson”

  1. It was such a joy to have Jackson Bodie back – for a time I thought Atkinson had given up on him. This was a fabulous book though a dark topic.
    You’ve nudged me to go back to book 1 because it’s such a long time ago that I read the series and I’m sure it will reward a re-reading

    Liked by 1 person

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