Sunday, April 17, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog

I've read everything Kate Atkinson's written ever since I fell in love with Behind the Scenes at the Museum about 10 years ago. With the exception of one book, everything is terrific.

Her last three books are serials, based around a private detective named Jackson Brodie. They all have a ridiculous number of characters and, if you're like me, you might find them hard to keep straight, although I have resisted, so far, creating complex trees and graphs on the back page, like I do with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salmon Rushdie.

What's really interesting about these three books is that they read sort of like (if you'll pardon my innate snobbery) middle-brow action novels along the lines of say, Clancey or Cornwell. Her earlier work, if you ask me, is much more academically literary. However, even though in terms of tone and pacing they have this more "pedestrian" (not that there's anything wrong with that) impression; thematically they are extremely sophisticated. I suspect that this is purposeful, and she's making a very specific choice to write in this way.

Atkinson leans heavily on her literary sources, this book has frequent references to Emily Dickenson and a traditional British poem that begins "For want of a nail the shoe was lost..." as well as the Latin phrase Et In Arcadia Ego (made popular in a 17th century painting by Nicolas Poussin). These themes (of death, the influence of the minuscule) repeat across the large cast of characters and what draws them together is not only their coincidental experiences but their sort of ... paradigmatic realities.

Atkinson refers again and again to violence toward women and allows this popular novel (heavily contrasted to Steig Larsson, who gets unjustly credited with exposing violence toward women in his work, if you ask me) to illustrate the extreme and subtle ways in which women face violence every day. For example, one character is a policewoman whose male colleagues over and over again refer to prostitutes as "working girls". Each time, she mutters how she is also a "working woman" -- a statement so lost on her coworkers they never respond to her.

Many characters are responding to current events out of regret for how they handled a similar event in their pasts. An elderly actress suffering from early dementia relives almost simultaneously an affair and pregnancy from her youth. Her chapters are poetic:
She had that funny feeling of darkness again, of the curtain of Northern Lights before her eyes. She was on a ship plowing through the dark waters. All about her was desperation. The spars breaking, the mainmast cracking, the sails hanging in rags. The figure-head of the ship was a naked baby howling in the wind. There were babies everywhere, hanging on to the rigging for dear life, clinging to the sides of the ship as it began to sink into the icy, oily sea. Tilly must save them, she must save them all, but she can't, she is going down with the ship. Mercy on us! We split, we split!

That last bit coming from The Tempest, naturally. You see what I mean?

Read an excerpt.