Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2015 reprint of a 2000 publication, 489 p

 Emotionally Weird cover

During this, Atkinson’s narrator (by implication Atkinson herself) is at pains to emphasise that it is a comic novel. It is mainly the tale of the student life in 1972 of Effie Stuart-Murray (Effie Andrews as she had thought of herself) ostensibly narrated to, and frequently interrupted by, her mother (who is not her mother) interleaved with said (not)mother’s relation to Effie of her convoluted origins. Extracts from the ongoing novels of some of the characters – including Effie’s own, which Emotionally Weird as a whole is not – appear at odd intervals. All this requires the use of seven or so different fonts (not including italics) to differentiate the various strands.

This is fine as far as it goes – and it is always welcome to find in a novel those fine Scottish words rammy, stushie and stramash (the use of which indicates Atkinson can truly be considered a Scottish writer,) not to mention a Dundee setting – but it is not enough to defuse analysis of a book’s faults by including criticism of it within it. “Too many characters” Effie’s not-mother tells her, and later, “a welcome piece of exposition” to which the reader can only say “indeed.”

Effie’s ongoing failures to deliver essays when they are due is a backdrop to various comings and goings between members of the University staff, students and a private investigator called Chick. There are some wry observations but few if any laugh out loud moments. The intrusion of fantasy elements – possible ghosts, pseudo magic realism, the use of authorial omnipotence to rewind and change events – only adds to the rather unfocused feel. Comic, after all, does not mean anything goes. Curious foreshadowings of Atkinson’s Life After Life and echoes of Behind the Scenes at the Museum exist in her predilection for scenes depicting drowning.

At the sentence level the writing is fine, good even, the characters’ interactions are well observed, their motivations psychologically plausible. The trouble is Effie’s student days are really entirely separate from the circumstances of her birth. While the two story strands are intermingled, sometimes with extremely short jump cuts, they are not really connected except that they both involve Effie. A lampooning of early 1970s campus culture is all very well and might not have been enough to carry the novel on its own – especially when it is elongated beyond its ideal length as it is here – but Effie’s unusual beginnings and relationship with her not-mother do not distract from this. In the end Emotionally Weird just goes on too long to too little effect but within it some seeds of Atkinson’s future triumphs can be discerned.

Pedant’s corner:- still caked in Monro mud (these hills are called Munros,) Cousins’ (Cousins’s,) “and the Hun were” (the Hun was,) “Murdo fell at Mons” (in the previous paragraph he had signed up at age fifteen, three months after his brother “crossed to France”. The battle at Mons was in August of 1914, was followed by a retreat and the British Army did not get back there till November 1918,) “‘if you can’t manage the math’” (the British usage is maths and this USian character had been in Britain long enough to adapt but to be fair to Atkinson I suppose she wouldn’t have,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s; it’s pronounced “day-cart” for goodness’s sake, and its possessive therefore must be “day-cart’s”,) a range of…. farm buildings were (a range was,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) one of the instances of jumping from strand to strand is a transition which adopts the new font one sentence too early, bouef bourguignonne (bouef bourguignon, or bouef à la Bourguinonne) “‘Jings, crivens and help me Boab’” (jings, crivvens and help ma boab,) Jenners’ carrier bags (Jenners’s,) Scalectrix (it’s spelled Scalextric,) tapsie-teerie (I thought at first this might be a mishearing by Atkinson of the more usual tapselteerie/tapsalteerie but I checked and the Dictionary of the Scots Language has it as a variant,) men-o’-wars (men-o’-war,) Effie Andrews’ (Effie Andrews’s.)

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