East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson: A different kind of dog [book note]

"How lucky were they?" the opening sentence asks, and we know that things can only go downhill for the Land family. The daughters of Victor, a probabilist, and Rosemary, a former nurse, live in what seems to be a idyll of grass and sunshine. Only it isn't so perfect - the delusions and frequent accidents of the girls are just the tip of a rapidly approaching iceberg. Kate Atkinson's potboiler then takes the conventions of the detective novel and inserts characters more typical of literary fiction. It becomes the story of private investigator Jackson, and of Amelia and Theo and Caroline, not all of who are clients of his.

Atkinson teases us with hints of minor twists, so just when we're congratulating ourselves for seeing through these, she pulls out the big revelations. Admittedly this is a cheap tactic, and the plot is ultimately less interesting than the characters. Lecturer Amelia appears unprepossessing; inside, she's all teen girl-angst. Ex-lawyer Theo is morbidly obese and fixated on past tragedy. Caroline, on the other hand, is doing better at least outwardly, yet she too longs to shift lives.

These sufferers would seem draggingly self-pitying in real life, but Atkinson engages our empathy by giving us their reasons, which may not be what we first suspect. In any case, Jackson does a terrific job of spacing out the whininess - he's by far the sanest character, even though he has the most shit to deal with in the present, what with a dragon of an ex, and attempts on his life. His foil is Amelia's sister Julia, just about to reach that age where acting kittenish is embarrassing (though Amelia has found it embarrassing for a long time.)

Laura Miller, Salon's best books of 2004: "...all three case histories are heartbreaking, and sometimes Atkinson's novel is, too. Then, a few pages later, some very funny observation about contemporary life or an expertly drawn (and entirely believable) minor character will make you laugh. Atkinson writes such fluid, sparkling prose that an ingenious plot almost seems too much to ask, but we get it anyway. If Lorrie Moore decided to write a genre-busting detective novel it might resemble "Case Histories," a book in which people take precedence over puzzles and there's no greater mystery than the resurrection of hope."

Colin Greenland, The Independent (don't read the whole review, it's spoiler city): "Atkinson is always perceptive and engaging, and this time perhaps a degree less antic in her postmodern playfulness. Literary references - to Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton or Jilly Cooper - are still plentiful... But as the book goes on, there seem to be fewer of these fidgety parentheses, and a new and welcome sense of calm and assurance that it's tempting, if presumptuous, to identify with maturity."


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