Friday, December 2, 2011

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

Things you should know about reading Kate Atkinson:

1. She uses commas where one would expect semi-colons, probably because if she didn't there would be a semi-colon in every other sentence. It's a very weird effect at first, but I got used to it.

2. She writes sentences about people wondering things which make you think the character is just thinking that, and then the other character responds to it and you realize Character A was actually speaking out loud. I found this irritating.

3. If a dog is mentioned, you know it is not going to end well. I think someone once told me that there are always dogs in Kate Atkinson books and they always die. Indeed, this book featured a (vicious) dog dying, mention of a dog being horribly killed in one character's past, and a very sad cat death. And the included excerpt of the next book in the series came flying out of the gate with a dog being killed while trying to defend its family. This sort of thing is Not Easy on me. I have a distinct memory of cheering as my mother choked her way through Beth March's death* (even as a child I had no patience with characters being aggressively perfect at me), but to this day if you want to make me burst into tears in public you just have to whisper "Where the Red Fern Grows," in my ear. I am actually crying a little bit just from typing it.

And yet I ordered the three other Jackson Brodie books the second I put this one down. Atkinson's writing is that good. Brisk, clean, and so funny. Maybe lovingly mocking Scotland isn't as funny to someone not of Scottish origin, but when she described the Scottish religion as "alcohol, football, [and] feeling badly done by," I knew this woman had me locked in.

This book, and the others in the series, are classified as mysteries. I would not have called this one that: it is very reminiscent of Ruth Rendell's books, in which Bad Things happen and there is usually one character involved with the law and investigating, but the point of the book is the character development and the way that the banalities of life intersect to create small individual tragedies. In Rendell the characters are all deeply disturbed and the tragedies are horrifying; Atkinson handled the same sort of layout very differently. I felt that she truly cared for each of her characters, and there was always the sense in this book that good is possible, that where there's life there's hope. This is made explicit at the end, in a lovely "yes, my life has just fallen apart, but that creates possibilities, and I'm still alive, and I'm driving north listening to country music," passage that was utterly what I needed to read right now.

I don't want to describe the plot, really, because it's very complicated and full of surprises and I don't think I could do it justice without spoilers. (It's not a spoiler that the cat dies: the minute you meet that cat you know it's not going to see the final page.) I just want to say that I kind of loved this book, and look forward to reading the others.

Next up: A Burial At Sea, by Charles Finch. I am a participant in the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing, in which publishers send you books if you will post a review of them. These books will always be jumped to the front of my to-read queue, because if I don't review them I might stop receiving a free book in the mail every month and that would be tragic. I did read the first book in Finch's Victorian mystery series a while back, and was underwhelmed, but I cut authors lots of slack on their first book. We'll see how this one goes.

*Because I was first drafting this post late at night with probably too many cups of tea in my system, it spawned a rambling side post about how Little Women would have been a great book if only there had been a 50% mortality rate among the sisters (ladies, you know who I'm talking about), and if Alcott had skipped the lesson that it's better for women to bite pieces out of their furniture than to exhibit anger; and then I started thinking, you know, that's not IKEA we're talking about, Marmee must have had some serious choppers; I mean, it's true that Darcy sometimes takes bites out of my old solid furniture, but he has giant wolfy teeth; and then I realized I had stumbled on the inevitable next step following the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies franchise: Louisa May Alcott's Little Werewolves. And then I knew it was time to go to bed.

1 comment:

  1. Atkinson sounds like Henning Mankell, who convinced me to like mysteries again if they're not fucking Mary Higgins Clark-style whodunnits. Tana French was next.