Category Archives: Atkinson Kate

Big Sky: Kate Atkinson

“There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.”

Big Sky is the 5th novel in the Jackson Brodie series from Kate Atkinson. If you’ve read some (or all) of the series, then you know Jackson’s troubled background and his fractured personal life. This novel finds Brodie on the east coast of Yorkshire, split from actress Julia (did we ever think it was going to work?) and now involved with his teenage son, Nathan. Julia initially denied Jackson was Nathan’s father, but “now that the worst years had arrived, however, it seemed that she was more than keen to share him.” With Julia “ferociously busy” in her role as a pathologist in a long-standing TV series, that means Jackson has the care of Nathan and Julia’s elderly Labrador, Dido. Jackson is still doing PI work, but his already shrinking business has shrunk even further. Brodie Investigations might have a glamorous ring, but the reality of his day-to-day work is “either following cheating spouses” or with the assistance of a “particularly enticing yet lethal” Russian woman named Tatiana, constructing “the sticky insides of honeypots (or flytraps as Jackson thought of them.”

Big Sky

Series PI/detective novels juggle the personal lives of the main characters with the cases under investigation, so here Jackson spends quite a bit of time with his 13-year-old son Nathan, ferrying him back and forth to Julia. Reggie, a character from the third Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News? also makes an appearance as part of a formidable two-woman police team: Reggie and Ronnie, known as the Krays. There are also scenes with Jackson’s daughter, Marlee and even Superintendent Monroe makes an appearance.

Two predators once hunted in this coastal region: Bassani and Carmody–two “council officials and respected charity supporters” who “shared an appetite for the same fodder.” They lured children “out of care homes and foster families or their own dysfunctional households.” They were lured with dangled opportunities: “amusement arcades and funfairs,” and the two predators organized “Christmas parties, outings to the countryside and the seaside, camping and caravan holidays.” There were “rumors of a third man. Not Savile.” Bassani died in prison, Carmody is about to be released, and some people in this seaside town wonder if he’ll “name names.”.

Big Sky contains a large cast of characters, and it’s hard at times to place these characters in terms of the plot as culpability/roles are obfuscated for a great deal of the book. We’re initially introduced to two sisters who then disappear until about 3/4 of the way through the book, and then there’s this handful of golf playing, smug affluent men who smirk at each other while making obscure in-jokes. This construction: adding characters without placing them in the context of the plot was unfortunate, but Brodie is a great character, and after a while, I gave up trying to puzzle out who all these people were and how they connected and instead just enjoyed the read.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the high-maintenance wives who choose to look the other when it comes to just how their husbands make all that money.  These are women who just can’t walk away, so there’s a high price for all that luxury. One of my favorite characters was Crystal: a plastic construct of a living walking Barbie doll. Ex manicurist, ex-topless model, ex- a lot of things, she has emerged and pragmatically accepted her position; she might as well have sex with one man rather than hundreds. She’s a good mother and a good stepmother. Her predecessor died in a strange accident after becoming a bit of a nuisance, but still …  Crystal thinks it’s best not to go there.

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction made from artificial materials–the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

Review copy

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“There were doorways between this world and the next.”

In 2012, one of my books-of-the-year was J. Robert Lennon’s remarkable novel,  Familiar–the story of an ordinary woman who finds herself in a parallel universe in which her troubled son didn’t die. Should she be happy about this instant, inexplicable transplant? Well yes, but just because one bad thing didn’t happen doesn’t mean that her ‘new’ life is altogether better….Anyway Familiar is a novel that deserves a lot of readers and a lot more attention than it received. And now on to another novel that also deals with the very difficult idea of alternate lives–an intriguing novel that has received an avalanche of positive criticism: Kate Atkinson’s  rich, imaginative Life After Life.

Life after lifeI’d read a few of Kate Atkinson’s earlier novels, and from the plot description, I was intrigued but also just a little skeptical. This is the story of Ursula Todd who initially is born and dies on a bitterly cold, snow-filled night in the year 1910. Birth and death. It’s a short chapter. But then subsequent chapters offer alternate scenarios with Ursula surviving by some miracle of timing. Given the date of her birth, of course she lives through WWI and WWII–although once again different scenarios in chapters covering specific dated blocks of time follow Ursula’s life as she reaches certain crossroads, makes certain choices, sometimes dying by some fluke accident or swept up as a statistic of history.

Ursula grows up to be a very unusual child and an equally unusual young woman. Ursula is taken to see Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist at one point after a particular strange incident, and he suggests to Ursula that “perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think you are repeating experiences.” Ursula, much later in the novel, in another version of her life tells Dr Kellet that “time isn’t circular… it’s like a palimpsest.”

Life After Life, to be honest, isn’t the easiest book to review. Normally one can tread through a certain amount of plot, but in this case, too much plot detail will reveal too much. There were several occasions, I felt tempted to trace out a timeline of Ursula’s various lives, choices and deaths, but I was wrapped up in the story, I didn’t want to analyze it too much, and there is a sort of magic to this sort of highly imaginative narration. Is this science fiction? Is this a story of parallel universes? Or is this one giant ‘what-if’? Laced with intriguing ideas including déjà-vu, destiny & fate, reincarnation, and Nietzsche’s amor fati, this is a novel that embraces all possibilities. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to nail down exactly what happens with time and fate in the novel. As a reader, you either accept it or not. Sort of reminds me of Terminator– logic doesn’t apply; it’s the story that counts. Author Kate Atkinson grants Ursula just an inkling that she’s somehow ‘different,’ and those parallel lives, created by alternate choices, are sensed, rather than known, as they whisper, close in the shadows “through a glass darkly”:

Everything familiar somehow. “It’s called déjà vu,” Sylvie said. “It’s trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery.” Ursula was sure that she could recall lying in a baby carriage beneath the tree. “No,” Sylvie said, “no one can remember being so small,” yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, tuning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. “You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.” Ursula didn’t know if this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear–fearful terror–that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. “Don’t dwell on such things, ” Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. “Think sunny thoughts.”

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

While this is a very clever novel that presents some intriguing possibilities about alternate lives, for this reader, the novel’s strength is rooted in its incredibly good characterisations. Ursula is the third of five children whose parents are Sylvie and Hugh Todd–a golden family whose permanent, idyllic country home at Fox Corner, replete with relatives, friends, dogs and servants, is the sort of loving, supportive environment that breeds individuality and contentment.  The novel covers over 50 years of history with various scenarios, various choices made played out against the two world wars, and although fate and history may be changed by a moment’s decision, Fox Corner remains a stable presence in the midst of global madness and upheaval. Ursula is, of course, the central character, and the choices she makes–some crucial and some deceptively simple, directly influence her various lives and lovers, but the fates of various characters in the Todd family circle also change with each of Ursula’s lives. The family’s irrepressible black sheep of the family, Isobel, Izzie, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” is by far my favourite character.

One of the great appeals of this ultimately optimistic novel can be explained in its call to our collective subconscious. For who among us has not, upon occasion experienced a sense of déjà vu–a feeling that we’ve been in a certain place or met a certain person before, and who has not wondered about the paths our lives would have taken if we’d turned a corner just a few seconds later? How often have you thought of an alternate self, a self that might have been if you’d made a different decision?

She had obscure memories of elation, of falling into darkness, but they belonged to that world of shadows and dreams that was ever present and yet almost impossible to pin down.

I’m not the only one who finds Atkinson’s latest phenomenal. Here’s Kevin’s review and also one from a long-time friend.

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Started Early Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

High praise goes to Kate Atkinson’s novel, Started Early Took My Dog. It’s the fourth novel by Atkinson to feature PI Jackson Brodie, and in my typical fashion, I am only now just getting to this author. This means I have some catch-up to do because after reading this one, I know I want to read all the earlier novels. I’m not going to write a full review. For that, go to Mostly Fiction.

Instead here’s the novel in brief: the two main characters are “butch old battlexe” Tracy Waterhouse, in her 50s, a retired Detective Superintendent from the West Yorkshire Police Dept  and PI Jackson Brodie. Tracy, bored to tears in retirement, is now Head of Security at a local shopping centre. Tracy, who has never married, becomes mixed up with the fate of a badly neglected child, and this sends her life into a tailspin. She’s also about to run into Jackson Brodie who’s been employed by an adopted girl in New Zealand to find her real parents. Clues lead to Tracy and an old murder case from 1975.

The novel goes back and forth between 1975 Yorkshire “awash with serial killers” and the present, and several threads regarding lost girls (kidnapped, missing, murdered) run throughout this simply marvellous story. This is not primarily a crime novel–although the action is built around several crimes; instead this is a superbly built story of several characters whose lives are shaped by crime. These characters make spilt-second decisions that haunt them for a lifetime, and this leads to crimes or sometimes serious errors in judgment. As the novel slips back and forth between 1975 and the present, we enter a time warp of attitudes. Tough women are either “butch” or “lezzies” and prostitutes ‘had it coming.’ Atkinson shows us that some attitudes have improved while others have just submerged and morphed into new pathologies. A strangely poignant tale with dense characterisation, this is a novel that may convince some readers to dip into a genre they normally avoid.

One of the things I particularly liked about the novel is the way in which the plot explored characters haunted by past experiences or by poor decisions they made. Here’s Tracy looking back over her career:

Tracy had a sudden, unexpected memory of the endless, thankless task of indexing cards during the Ripper investigation. The police had people out taking down registrations of cars in the red-light district, spotting ones that turned up regularly, triple sightings in Bradford, Leeds, and Manchester. Sutcliffe was one of those, of course–interviewed nine times, exonerated. So many mistakes. Tracy was still naive, no idea how many men used prostitutes, thousands from all walks of life. She could hardly believe it. Gambling, drinking, whoring–the three pillars of western civilization.

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