I love Atkinson’s writing. She’s funny and sarcastic and snarky and can deliver devastingly apt observations about relationships. Therefore, in spite of the fact that I had already read this book several years ago, and have a TBR pile that is taking over my house, after reading When Will There Be Good News, I decided that I needed to go back to the beginning and read Atkinson’s other books again!
The book begins with three case histories of unsolved murders that are seemingly unconnected -and yet, if you’ve read some Atkinson, you know nothing ever remains unconnected! Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared over thirty years ago. Eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre was killed in a law office massacre ten years previously by an unknown perpetrator. And 25 years ago, eighteen-year-old Michelle Fletcher, in over her head with a demanding baby and husband, went to prison for murdering her husband with an ax; what became of the child is unknown.
All of these cold cases are brought by the survivors to Private Detective Jackson Brodie, 45, divorced, and father of an eight-year-old, Marlee, whose affections he fears he is losing to his wife’s new partner. In spite of his preoccupations, however, he struggles to do his best by his clients, even though he is often profoundly perplexed by what they really want from him.
Each chapter is told from a different narrative viewpoint, and some of them cleverly replicate events of a previous chapter but from a different perspective. In this way, gradually the veils covering the truth about the past are unwound, and through Jackson, all the seemingly disparate strains join together in a karmic weave of chance and circumstance.
Discussion: What makes Atkinson’s books truly memorable is her facility with language, and her ability to capture so adroitly the essence of a character. Similarly, she is impressive for her astute and sobering portrayal of the quotidian concerns and existential ironies in the lives of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people.
Some examples of Atkinson’s writing prowess:
[re Josie, Jackson Brodie’s ex-wife, who “spent much of her working day modifying the behavior of five-year-old boys.”] ” When they were married she would come home and do the same to Jackson (‘For God’s sake, Jackson, use the proper words. It’s a penis’) during their evenings together, cooking pasta and yawning their way through crap on television. She wanted their daughter, Marlee, to grow up ‘using the correct anatomical language for genitalia.’ Jackson would rather Marlee grew up without knowing genitalia even existed, let alone informing him that she had been ‘made’ when he ‘put his penis in Mummy’s vagina,’ an oddly clinical description for an urgent, sweatily precipitate event that had taken place in a field somewhere off the A1066 between Thetford and Diss, an acrobatic coupling in his old F Reg BMW (320i, two-door, definitely a policeman’s car, much missed, RIP).”
“Jackson could feel the ache in his jaw starting up again. He was currently seeing more of his dentist than he had of his wife in the last year of their marriage. His dentist was called Sharon and was what his father used to refer to as ‘stacked.’ She was thirty-six and drove a BMW Z3, which was a bit of a hairdresser’s car in Jackson’s opinion, but nonetheless he found her very attractive. Unfortunately, there was no possibility of having a relationship with someone who had to put on a mask, protective glasses, and gloves to touch you. (Or one who peered into your mouth and murmured, ‘Smoking, Jackson?’)”
“Jackson [again at the dentist’s and eying the surgical instruments] tried not to think about this, nor about that scene in Marathon Man, and instead worked on conjuring up a picture of France. He could grow vegetables, he’d never grown a vegetable in his life, Josie had been the gardener, he’d carried out her orders, Dig this, move that, mow the lawn. In France, the vegetables would probably grow themselves anyway. All that warm fertile soil. Tomatoes, peaches. Vines, could he grow vines? Olives, lemons, figs – it sounded biblical. Imagine watching the tendrils creeping, the fruit plumping, oh God, he was getting an erection (at the idea of vegetables, what was wrong with him?).
Evaluation: Although there are crimes in this book, it is more a story about people and what motivates them than about mysteries. It is as if you are experiencing the tale holographically – the characters present themselves to you in all their dimensions, and you can’t dismiss any of them as caricatures. Atkinson is a writer for people who appreciate the craft, and who love discovering just how much depth can be bestowed to characters in a short space, and how much meaning can be packed into a deceptively simple paragraph.
Paperback edition published by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company (now part of Hachette Book Group USA), 2005 (Originally published: London: Doubleday, 2004).