19 May 2009
First five chapters – to She would get the flowers herself
Kate Atkinson often lets you think you know where you are, then reveals something that shows you that you were wrong. Or she lets you think you don’t know what’s going on, then reveals that in fact you do…. It’s quite entertaining to be never quite sure what’s going to happen next, so that’s all right. But it makes it seem that the only important thing is the plot.
First chapter: we think we’re in one kind of story – crap dad drives off forever leaving resourceful wife full of resentment but ready to get on with life anyway – but then Atkinson kills off all the characters except one, the timid younger daughter. Fine. Then we’re in the present day (the murder took place 30 years ago) with a highly suspicious bloke stalking a little boy in a playground. He’s gone to some North Yorkshire tourist village to do it and… what he wanted was a single hair from the boy’s head. Something to do with DNA, we guess, but we don’t know why. And if there’s any connection with the old murder we don’t know what it is. (We still don’t, three chapters later.)
There’s another little boy in the next chapter, not quite a year old. Kate Atkinson had let us imagine we were finding out about a character called Reggie – it’s one of the author’s winning little jokes to delay the revelation that Reggie is Regina, not Reginald, and it’s another of them when she lets us know that yes, she does know what it rhymes with – but Reggie is just the child-minder for the real star, Dr Hunter. And you’ll never guess? She – successful, sorted out and ecstatically happy with her only child – is none other than the formerly timid survivor of the murder. This is a longish chapter, focusing as much on Reggie as on Dr H, and full of their witty references to popular culture and, goodness me, the Roman classics. (Reggie is bright, and allows Atkinson to have a look at the troubled life of a poor scholarship girl who hated the smug middle class girls at school and whose parents are another object lesson in failure. And, oh yeh: her mother’s recently died and her brother’s becoming a petty crook. Blimey.)
Anyway, we begin to realise that Dr H is perhaps a little too fixated on the welfare of the boy… but more of that later. She looks a bit unsure of herself after a visit from a senior policewoman, and we wonder if it’s to do with her husband, a businessman down on his luck. It isn’t, but we don’t find that out for a couple of chapters yet. Because, obviously, that’s how Kate Atkinson likes to do it.
We’re back with the DNA man again for a brief chapter in which we find out he wants to prove that his wife (or ex-wife, or ex-lover – there are a lot of dysfunctional relationships in this book) is lying when she says he isn’t the boy’s father….
…And the parent/child theme carries on as we take another detour in the fifth chapter. We’re with the policewoman we briefly met with Dr H, and she has a teenage son she worries about. She also has a new and almost unfeasibly successful and likeable surgeon husband who is dropping hints about, maybe, the possibility of a baby. Louise (the policewoman) contrasts her own self-doubt and problematic life with Jo, Joanne, Dr Hunter who seems to have it all sorted. Except – and we’re in the knotty world of marital relationships again – Louise is the one with the perfect husband and Jo’s husband is just beginning to slip inside the police’s radar. Not that he’s done anything wrong, as any MP would say, but one of his businesses did burn down, and he’s been seen with one or two dodgy people lately….
As I said, it’s full of plot. It reminds me of one of those tv drama series where lots of stuff happens and it’s all perfectly engaging. It’s also highly readable, as Atkinson keeps it chugging along with jokes and some of the absurd features of life in middle-class (and working-class) Britain in the first decade of the 21st Century. And, of course, we still don’t really have a clue what’s going on, except for some misgivings about what might happen to Jo if anything happens to the baby, And, a page or two from the end of the chapter, guess what: the man who murdered her family has just been released from prison. Gulp.
The next seven chapters – to the end of Today
They’re not long chapters, and the last two are very short…. I hadn’t really cottoned on to the fact that it’s a thriller (I’m slow that way), but stuff just keeps on happening. Whatever else Kate Atkinson is trying to achieve – and I’ll come back to that in a bit – she’s not after plausibility. This book is full of patterns, echoes, coincidences. Forget six degrees of separation – by the end of this section, there are none. To get the plot out of the way first…. Suspicious DNA man turns out to be a good sort, ex-army, ex-police force, just trying to find his way round the obstacles life keeps chucking at him. He gets on a train going the wrong way – it seems that Atkinson needs him in Edinburgh, where the others live – and it crashes near where Reggie has lessons from a born-again ex-teacher dying of cancer. (Death’s a theme I’ll get back to, because Atkinson does. All the time.) At the end of the last chapter in the section Reggie has just given DNA man – Jackson, he’s called – mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, thus hauling him back from a beautiful white-tunnel out-of-body-type experience he was really enjoying, because he was being welcomed to the after-life by his sister, who was murdered.
Meanwhile, in a chapter satirically called ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ Louise is hating an evening with her husband, his sister and the sister’s husband. She thinks back guiltily to the man she should have had a relationship with when she had a chance – who, we already know, is none other than Jackson. Her sense of being an outsider in a middle class world is identical to Reggie’s – and is the opposite, apparently, of Jo’s no-good father whose first novel – I forgot to mention he was a novelist – is about a scholarship boy who gleefully turns his back on the working class life he hates. (Not sure who Kate Atkinson is getting at there. Somebody like John Braine – and we hate him, obviously, because he’s a class traitor.) Louise is late for the awful evening because she does these unpaid vigils outside the house of a woman whose estranged husband killed some of her family. The woman, unlike Jo (oh yeh? Start ringing those alarm bells now), isn’t coping and is practically agoraphobic. Anyway, she’s rescued from the torture of small-talk by a phone call: there’s been a train crash – and no doubt Dr Jo will be there too.
Any other deaths? We get the details of the holiday drowning of Reggie’s mother (did I mention that Reggie is an orphan?), trapped by her hair, caught in a swimming-pool drain. (Hair’s another leitmotif, linking at least three of the characters.) The man in the train Jackson tries to save looks very dead in the mud outside. And all the women in Jackson’s ex-lover’s family die of breast cancer (cue graphic illustrations of some saint serving up her martyred breasts like blancmanges). Reggie’s teacher is convinced that all but a few are about to die in a terrible day of judgment (although it’s so ridiculous Atkinson turns it into black comedy). Louise, musing on how she feels about her hasty marriage to the wrong guy remembers a ballad in which a new bride accidentally locks herself in a box and is discovered as a skeleton years later. Earlier, outside the house of the woman whose husband went mad with a gun, she muses on that weird kind of father who kills himself and takes the kids with him. It’s hardly surprising that Jackson can’t get snatches of ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’ out of his head all through the fateful day. (Other characters have been living through days and weeks on their own time-lines. Jackson’s time-line begins on the afternoon of the day that ends in the train crash. Clever. Claustrophobic.)
It sounds dour, but Atkinson plays comical games with the tone. She slips in jokes or absurdities, as if she‘s reminding us not to take it too seriously. She’s like the witty one in a conversation, constantly coming up with clever little plays on words and scattered observations about the oddities of modern life or Tunnock’s caramel wafers. It’s her style, and if she reminds me of Victoria Wood (especially in the banter between the clever ones, Reggie and Dr Jo), well, I like Victoria Wood. And she throws us other titbits: all her characters love to quote stuff that often gives a wry tweak to whatever’s being talked about. Jingles, the clichés of contemporary language (‘wouldn’t want to be ya’) and, weirdly, Scots border ballads. It can’t be a coincidence that both Reggie and Louise can’t get lines (different lines) from ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ out of their heads. It all adds entertainment value, and you can see why Atkinson does it. Maybe it’s another thing to keep us guessing: is the next twist going to be laugh-out-loud or horrifying?
All the Tomorrow section
Dr H has disappeared – and it was only when this happened that I realised we‘ve never been inside her head: the Dr H/Reggie chapters are told entirely from the girl’s point of view. There’s a supposedly rational explanation for her disappearance: an aunt has fallen ill in Hawes (coincidentally, near where Jackson nicked a hair from the boy’s head) and Dr H has gone to be with her. But Reggie thinks this highly unlikely, and we agree with her, for all sorts of circumstantial reasons. Earlier she talked about escaping from the media circus that would probably gather around the release of the murderer – and in the last chapter of Tomorrow we’re briefly inside her head – but we’re not quite sure when (the chapter begins 30 years ago, just after the murder) and we’ve no idea where. All we really get is, in italics, Run, Joanna, run – an echo of her mother from 30 years ago.
And other stuff happens. Briefly: we find out Reggie’s tutor caused the train crash by driving, apparently accidentally, on to the line. Jackson is slowly recovering, amidst a lot of comic stuff to do with amnesia. At first he thinks he’s Andrew Decker, because that’s what his driving licence says. But that’s the driving licence of the killer who’s just been released, obviously, and soon he remembers his real name. But he thinks his wife is missing. Er, what wife?
Meanwhile Reggie’s home is trashed by two young blokes looking for one ‘Reggie Chase’ which sounds like her – but they’re looking for a bloke, probably her no-good brother giving them a not-quite false name. She gets a big bruise as she tries to escape to the shower, which later makes Louise suspicious. Louise is talking to her after Reggie has told her of her suspicions about Dr H… which Louise doesn’t believe. Or does she, somewhere deep inside? Reggie gives Louise a postcard she found on Jackson, and it has his name on it – so Louise goes to see him as he lies there half-asleep. He sees her and realises this is the woman he loves. She thinks the same about him, we later find, but doesn’t tell him – she’s married, for god’s sake. Unfortunately – ‘to the right man, but he’s married to the wrong woman.’ Ho ho.
There are so many unlikely stories and preposterous coincidences that Kate Atkinson has one of her characters draw attention to them. Louise talks to Reggie as though the girl is making everything up, and who can blame her? Atkinson makes us wonder what is going on. Is there a serious point – a literary point, no less – to the metafictional tricks? When Louise notices the names – Hunter, Chase – I wonder if this is really Atkinson saying, I told you not to believe any of this. It’s a novel, stupid.
Fine. But I’m not really that bothered any more: too much cleverness, not enough, well, heart. It’s hard to care about pawns in somebody’s private game of chess – even though some of the writing, like the descriptions of Jackson’s slow emergence from wherever he’s been, is brilliant.
All the And tomorrow section
I just re-read what I wrote at the end of the last section, and I think the same now. Only more so. Atkinson is a hugely talented comic writer, and I love Reggie, who has turned into the novel’s unlikely heroine. (Of course, everything in this novel is unlikely, so that’s all right.) Jackson Brodie – who, I found out from the sleeve-notes, has appeared in previous novels – is engaging, and it’s interesting to try to guess what bit of self-destructive folly Louise will commit next…. And Atkinson makes minor characters as appealing as she can before doing that all-powerful narrator thing of killing them off.
And doesn’t she just love a killing? We’ve already had Reggie’s teacher, the charmingly bonkers religious cultist, parking on the tracks and causing the deaths of fifteen rail passengers. In the last chapter of this section we’ve had Louise’s likeable sidekick killed off in the novel’s least interesting (and least relevant) subplot, the one about the murderous husband. We’ve found out a bit more about the murder and suicide in Jackson’s past. And we have Dr Jo (remember her?) who really had been kidnapped, as Reggie always realised, doing that pen in the eye thing on one of her captors and slicing though the other one’s carotid arteries. Oh, how we laughed at the blood.
And what does Jackson find when he gets home – you know, just before the bit where he finds out that his recent blissful marriage was a con-trick and that all his accounts are empty? The murderer of Dr Jo’s family all those years ago, the one we thought might have kidnapped her (shows how much we know), has got all Jackson’s stuff, including his keys. We don’t know how he got them and don’t particularly care – but, fresh out of jail he needs to find a quiet place to blow his brains out, the aftermath of which can be lovingly described by our author. There mightn’t be much sex in an Atkinson novel – none in this one yet, and there’s not much of it left – but there’s plenty of violence. What larks.
What else? One character, Louise’s doomed sidekick I think, mentions how things are getting to be a bit like an Agatha Christie novel. Another character, Louise I think, says Nah. But it is, exactly like that, with its red herrings and games-playing author whose main motivation appears to be to keep us guessing. And, in spite of the wonderful way Atkinson can get inside people’s heads when she wants to, if you’re looking for psychological realism (or any other sort of realism), look somewhere else.
Anyway. Less than 20 pages to go. Atkinson, with defiant cheek, has neatly returned Dr Jo to her house, now cleaned up and looking chipper after having earlier covered herself in almost all her captors‘ blood. She’s had Jackson burn down the kidnap house – part of the process of simply deleting the whole episode – and… we wonder what other little surprises await us. Will Louise murder her perfect husband just to be awkward? Or boil the puppy he seems to have got for them (on the first page of the final section – I peeped)? Will Reggie be disembowelled by the lowlifes chasing her brother? Will Dr Jo’s personality, carefully constructed over 30 years, be revealed as that of a psycho who convinced the murderer of her family that the only way he would ever stop the voices in his head would be to distribute its contents around a stranger‘s flat? None of these, I’m sure. Tell you in a bit.
None of the above because, as Atkinson has kindly reminded us, it’s Christmas. So she plays Scrooge after his night with the spirits – and, because she’s the author and can do what she wants, she gives everybody perfect presents. The police decide to accept at face value Dr Jo’s story that she can’t remember anything that happened, so that’s all right. And her lovely house is in her name, so her no-good bankrupt husband can’t get his hands on it, so that’s all right as well. Reggie needs a new mother and Dr Jo quite fancies a capable daughter… so Reggie moves in, with the fab new laptop Dr Jo bought her, and with half the proceeds from the sale of the house the barmy teacher left her in her will. Jackson, thrown into penury by his con-artist wife, finds out he’s actually got the money from the sale of his house in France, which arrived too late to be hoovered up by Madame Scam. And he’s always got the memory of the best thing that ever happened to him: he was the one who found little Joanna in the field all those years ago – and Kate Atkinson pulls out all the stops to make the memory perfect for the reader as well. Err…. Reggie’s brother – we’re not bothered about him. Louise: she’s vowing to leave Dr Perfect next week – but wait, she might be a bit pregnant and there’s some significant talk about boxes in the heart, once they’re opened, not being so easily shut….
So I was wrong. There’s only one death in this section, the suicide of the unimportant mother of Louise’s murdered sidekick. She’s like one of the red-shirted ensigns in Star Trek who gets killed within minutes of arriving on the planet, so we’re not bothered. And, in fact. I was a bit right about Dr Jo. Dark hints are dropped about her visit to see the murderer a month before his release (did I mention that?): she probably really did persuade him he couldn’t possibly live with himself, and eternal damnation (he found Catholicism in jail) would be far preferable. How we laughed.
In this novel there’s an interesting theme about parenthood, about what it means to be a properly caring father or mother, son or daughter. There are other not-quite parent/child relationships too, the one between Reggie and Dr H ending happily, the one between Louise and her sidekick, well, not. (Of course, Atkinson seems to be offering Louise the real thing as her main present at the end.) But the interesting stuff gets lost in all the noise…. I wonder if Kate Atkinson has written a novel where she doesn’t keep messing about and showing off all the time. That would definitely be worth reading.