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Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2019, 363 p.

The title on the cover of this is preceded by the words “A Jackson Brodie novel.” After her initial success with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, followed by two less well received novels (one of which I reviewed here) Atkinson went on to write four novels featuring her private detective of that name. She then embarked on technically accomplished (and more ambitious) novels dealing with the fallout from World War 2 in A God in Ruins, Life After Life and Transcription.

The action here revolves around towns on the Yorkshire coast in the area of Whitby and Scarborough, the hangover from the activities of two since-jailed local child abuse abetters called Bassani and Carmody, and the present-day sex-trafficking partnership of a group of golfing friends.

Oh, and there’s a murder. That, though, is resolved off-stage and does not impinge much on proceedings.

Big Sky has at least ten viewpoint characters and its chapters tend to be short – sometimes with very short sections within them from some of those different viewpoints. All this conspires to make the experience of reading Big Sky bitty.

There was something about the writing here that I found a little off. A misjudgement of tone, (female detectives named Ronnie Dubicki and Reggie Chase. Detectives called Ronnie and Reggie. Seriously?) unnecessary repetitions of phrases – though perhaps some of this was to imply Vince Ives was protesting too much – and intersecting timelines which were not well handled so that we saw the same scene’s events repeated very soon after their first appearance but with very little difference in the reader’s sense of what had occurred. Combined with the occasional descent into cliché this gave the impression, to this one anyway, that Atkinson was writing down to her readers.

This is no A God in Ruins nor a Life After Life, nor a Transcription even, but perhaps after her achievements in those books Atkinson needed a rest – or to have some fun. She overdid it though.

Pedant’s corner:- On a visit to a museum Brodie tells his son Captain Cook was the ‘first man to sail around the world.’ (No. That would be members of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition [Magellan himself did not survive the journey.]) Croyden (Croydon?) “she had strived hard” (striven,) “he’d compèred Saturday Night at the London Palladium (Sunday Night surely?) “It was a raucous lot that were in tonight” (that was in,) crack cocaine is implied to have been a drug widespread in the 1970s, (it wasn’t till the 80s) focussing (focusing.) “None of them were” (none of them was,) Mellors’ (several times, Mellors’s,) “his act finished on such a crescendo” (such a climax.) The remains of a handsome sunset was still staining the sky” (the remains … were still staining,) a missing full stop. “With his luck he would bob around till the lifeboat found him or a stray fishing vessel” (has its syntax awry; why would a lifeboat find a stray fishing vessel? Try instead, ‘till the lifeboat or a stray fishing vessel found him’,) staunch (stanch,) focussed (focused,) “the news’ afterburn” (the news’s,) staunched (stanched,) “where a cluster of bridesmaids … were waiting for them” (where a cluster …. was waiting.)

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

William Heinemann, 2008, 540 p.

 The Gone Away World cover

The Jorgmund Pipe circles the Gone-Away world, protecting its environs from the Stuff which conjures new people and things out of dreams snatched from the minds of survivors of the Go Away War by delivering FOX (inFOrmationally eXtra-saturated matter) into the air surrounding it. It is the aftermath of said War, so-called because of the deployment of Go Away bombs (which do as their name suggests; their targets simply disappear.) Not quite as secret a weapon as its original users thought, though, since retaliation in kind came swiftly, leaving only pockets of normality in its wake and the unforeseen side-effect of strange apparitions/demons/monsters, (delete as to taste) swirling out of the affected areas, manifestations of Stuff.

Nothing hereafter ought to detract from what in the end turned out to be an engaging, emotionally involving read. Harkaway is a talent, as he has shown in subsequent books, but this novel is not without its flaws – even if it does have a daring conceit as its turning point.

We kick off when (despite an anonymous phone call advising its employees not to) the Haulage & Hazmat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company of Exmoor County, of which our narrator is a member, takes up a contract to put out a fire which threatens to destroy both the Pipe and the factory producing FOX. The company’s unwieldy title is an indicator of Harkaway’s approach here, an exuberance of word-play which tends to the wearing – at least until the book settles down. The author is certainly not afraid to call a spade a horticultural implement and otherwise circumlocute all the way around a subject in an attempt to provide levity, or (if you wish to be generous) to avoid cliché or the humdrum. It certainly makes for an impressive word-count. It was Harkaway’s first novel though, so we may forgive a little exuberance. (A little, but not a lot.)

Despite the destruction wrought by the Gone-Away bombs, there are still buses and cars (leaving me to wonder where the petrol for them came from) streetlamps, shops – gentlemen’s outfitters no less – and hierarchies of wealth much like that in the world before the war. Despite all having changed, in the larger settlements of the Pipe’s environment things appear to be much as they were before the War. (A nit-picking complaint, I agree, the author’s invention and creativity have been expended in other areas and it is possible to ask too much of a narrative, but it seemed to me to land on a default which the scenario would have made unlikely and thus undermined it.)

Then there is the book’s structure. By all means begin as near to the end as possible (as a piece of writing advice I read recently had it) but it is perhaps a mistake to presage a set-piece then – for all that it is the novel’s fulcrum – delay its depiction for well more than half the book. From that set-up we jump to our narrator’s back-story and relationship with his lifelong friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, his tutelage by a Zen master known as Wu Shenyang, his dabbling with roughly left-wing politics as a means to accessing girls, his targeting as a subversive and turning into a soldier and counter-insurgent, his encounter with the inventor of the Go-Away bomb, his awareness of the dirtiness of politics and international financial manœuvrings, his experience of the War and of its aftermath in the building of the Jorgmund Pipe. One highlight of this is a description of the difficulties of organising and carrying through a first-date – or making flapjacks – in a war zone; a ‘normal’ war zone at that.

The piece of authorial bravado at the heart of the book – which in its own terms justifies that structural choice – does not quite make up for it. For what happens when we are finally shown the Civil Freebooting Company extinguishing the fire – and incidentally discover along with the characters just how FOX is made – calls into question all that has come before. Not quite as in Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins but in a similar vein (yet opposite sense.) It does though highlight the question of what it might mean to be human. That is, of course, fiction’s job.

Pedant’s corner:- a few commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “one less layer” (one fewer,) “to test their metal” (Dearie me! The thing is you test is mettle,) hiccough (there is no derivational evidence for this spelling; hiccup,) “dinted grill” (grille,) appalls (appals,) genii (except in the sense of ‘spirit’ – which here it was not – the English plural of genius is geniuses,) infinitessimal (infinitesimal,) “so now there is now a crowd” (one ‘now’ too many,) “layed out” (laid out,) “beautiful woman are not rare” (women,) rarified (rarefied,) “‘I thought you were a gonner’” (a goner,) “I have kneeled” (knelt,) burglarised (for heaven’s sake! The word is burgled,) squidgey (squidgy,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) an opened parenthesis which is never closed (unless it was by the parenthesis later on the same page. But it didn’t read like that.)

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins, leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

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.)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Serpent’s Tail, 2014, 341 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves cover

Firstly, this is a very good book indeed; and a consciously literary endeavour. Fowler’s first person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, frequently addresses the reader, digresses, makes asides, approaches her story obliquely, moves it forward and backward in time. She tells us in the prologue what she is about to do. Start in the middle. And later, in a cell, awaiting interrogation by the FBI she reflects on what she will say, “I would not only tell the tale but also comment on it.” Quite. By the end, though, she has decided that stories can begin and end anywhere.

When she was young Rosemary never stopped speaking. The reasons why, and why she gradually stopped doing so, are revealed over the course of the novel. Up until she was five years old Rose had lived with her mother, father, brother and sister. On returning from what she perceived as a banishment to her grandparents’ house she discovers her own family has moved house but it is her sister who has been sent away. This central circumstance is so essential to the novel that any discussion of it beyond generalities would reveal too much but it is its ramifications, the nature of her sister, Fern, and the effects both of these have on Rosemary and her brother, Lowell, which drive Fowler’s story.

Unsurprisingly, tensions abound. Rose tells us, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” This is most likely a nod to Tolstoy’s similar phraseology. Through Rosemary, Fowler tells us elsewhere, “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly.” Incidentally, the Cooke family had a dog called Tamara Press. Quite why Fowler chose the name of a 1960s Russian shot-putter for this is obscure (to me at least.)

Much play is made of the unreliability of memory. Rose recalls an incident from her childhood where she remembers her father deliberately driving over a cat but he was not the sort of person to do such a thing. She both believes it happened and also that it didn’t and refers to it as her own personal Schrödinger’s cat. She also says that language “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies” memories and remembers her father telling Lowell that language and communication are two different things. In a neat line connecting Rose’s use of contact lenses with her sister’s disappearance she says, “It’s what you do with disposables; you get rid of them.”

Rose twice emphasises her experience that, “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail” and refers to the rift in the family as “A monkey on my back….” but in what seems an authorial interpolation, “When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy.” Her father was a researcher into animal behaviour and the book is run through with references to such research. “‘You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it’s a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism – all natural human behaviours… triggered any time by any unscrupulous yahoo with a pulpit… Mobbing…Bullying. Empathy.’” The book is very much Rose’s story, her umwelt (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.) Humans it seems are much more imitative than other apes.

For various (and different) reasons I was reminded of both William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are not many novels which go into detail on the concept of theory of mind or discourse on embedded mental states and imputation. Yet these discursions seem a natural part of the narrative making for a tremendously well worked out and impressively rendered novel.

Pedant’s corner:- A flock of seagulls were grazing (a flock was grazing,) hieroglyphic (hieroglyph.) Fowler does, however, receive plus points for culs-de-sac.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2015, 398 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 A God in Ruins cover

It’s almost impossible for me to discuss this book without the possibility of spoilers. For nigh on 400 pages Atkinson relates the life and times of Teddy Todd, RAF bomber pilot and brother of the Ursula whose many lives were told in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life, yet within a few pages of the end the author pulls the rug from under her preceding story in spectacular fashion. Yes, familiarity with the previous book bolsters the logic of what she does but that conceit was firmly established before the novel was fully under way. Here there is foreshadowing in Teddy’s nightmares about the war (“in nightmares we wake ourselves before the awful end, before the fall,”) the epitaph from Keats that Teddy reflects on, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and his thoughts in the care home where he is living out his days, “That’s what he’d always done, of course, what everyone did, if you were lucky,” but really this skirts close to the sort of thing that teachers warn against very early in anybody’s attempts at story-telling as being essentially unfair on the reader. Of course, alternative endings such as Atkinson gives us are not new to fiction (and Life After Life in a sense was a whole book of them) but they usually carry on from the events leading to them and do not vitiate what has gone before quite as completely as the one here.

That her tale survives this is, then, something of a wonder, the engagement she engenders not wholly undermined. I know all fiction is a combination of smoke and mirrors, but it isn’t usually so explicitly acknowledged within a text. It helps that A God in Ruins (in retrospect a very apt title) appears formidably researched. The wartime scenes are stunningly effective. The book stands as a eulogy to the 55,573 dead of Bomber Command, a lament for their never to be born children and grandchildren, a threnody to all of its aircrews – including the survivors “part of him never adjusted to having a future”.

I had early reservations, too, about some of the techniques employed in the narrative. The timeline jumps about – not only from chapter to chapter but within a section, sometimes within a paragraph. Some events are referred to or described more than once (and not always from a different viewpoint) and I thought I’ve been told this already. In the context of the novel’s last few pages though these became more explicable.

Despite the chapters on Teddy’s later life and those focusing on his children it is the war that increasingly comes to dominate the narrative. “‘Sacrifice,’ Sylvie said, ‘is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.’” Teddy comes to the conclusion, “By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” Elsewhere, “Britain in the gloomy aftermath of war felt more like a defeated country than a victorious one.”

A hint to the mindset of an author of fiction is perhaps pointed to in the passages, “A whole life could be contained in a dinner service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away,)” and, “People always took war novels seriously.”

In what I believe I recall as an exchange which also occurred in Life After Life (deliberately ironical given that book’s premise) we have, “Nancy sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ she said, ‘about reincarnation.’ ‘No,’ Ursula said, ‘I believe we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.’”

A God in Ruins may not be lived perfectly but is, overall, an impressive achievement; better than Life After Life. One that, principally due to the war scenes (see: I did take them seriously – though of course WW2 is a period in which I have long had an interest,) will live with me for a long while.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)

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