Friday, 12 April 2013

K is for Kate Atkinson

“The beginning is the word and the end is silence. And in between are all the stories.” 
Kate Atkinson, Human Croquet.

Whilst at University, one of my favourite lecturers, Chris Prior, recommended a book he had recently read that he believed I would love. It became one of the best recommendations anyone has ever made to me. He lent me his dog-eared and well-loved copy of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson and I devoured it in 48 hours flat.

Having studied English Literature for A-Level whilst at college, my once fervent love of reading had taken something of a battering. Being required to read texts, selected by someone else, and then having to dissect said works in minute detail, can really take the pleasure out of reading for a 17 year-old. I'd recently discovered Ian McEwan and enjoyed his work (later discovering, to my annoyance, that we could have studied his amazing 1987 novel, A Child in Time, as a set text instead of another Shakespeare) but I was reading for pleasure sparingly. This was odd as, in childhood, I'd rarely had my head out of a book. I suppose it is hard to enjoy books for fun, when you know you really should be working your way through 'that Chaucer' or 'another Thomas Hardy'.

University bought with it yet more interminable reading lists and set-texts, but the pressure felt somewhat eased, and Chris' thoughtful suggestion bought me back to the world of the bookworm with a bang. Atkinson's first novel is an intriguing and engrossing tale that follows the story of Ruby Lennox, a woman living in modern-day York, and the lives of four generations of women from her family. The narrative is structured to tell Ruby's story in 13 linear chapters, which are interspersed with non-linear flashbacks to the lives of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Through these glimpes we gain a picture of the lives of the woman that came before Ruby and the way that their tales intertwine and echo each other is captivating. Intrigue is established, family secrets revealed and the differences, as well as the aching similarities, of these four women's existences floods the book with a depth of emotion rare in contemporary fiction.

In Human Croquet, her second work, Atkinson plays with the notion of time travel and the concept of
tracking a lineage within a family through a blend of first and third person narratives. Although not popular with many of her fans, I loved this book and its quirky non-linear narrative and jumps in perspective. It is not an easy read, but it is, as the story unfolds, a highly rewarding story. 2000's Emotionally Weird manages to be a story about writing without, as so many do, becoming at all self-indulgent or cliquey. It examines the process of telling stories, how our own memories are infused by the stories of others and the way that we rely on the tales of others to guide our own development. It has a quirky, sometimes disconcerting style but again proves what a unique talent Atkinson has for revealing a story to her readers in the most unexpected of ways.

Atkinson's next four books, Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog are all detective novels featuring her most popular
character, Jackson Brodie. She retains her quirky style and ability to weave twists and turns that even the most suspicious of readers cannot predict, drawing together, Douglas Adams-style, the most disparate of elements within a narrative to the same nexus point at the climax of a story. These remain, undoubtedly, fantastic fiction and Brodie is certainly an appealing character, but I have to say, I prefer her other more abstract works from the generally linear-natured Brodie books. I was also massively disappointed by the BBC's attempts to dramatise the Brodie books for TV in 2011, but then so much of the joy of Atkinson's work, for me, is in the delicacy of her prose and the vivid imagery conjured by her inspired use of language.

Atkinson has a knack for choosing locations for her novels that I hold dear to my heart. The cobbled Shambles of York in Behind the Scenes, the gritty streets of Leeds in Started Early, Took My Dog, Edinburgh, alive with colour during the Festival Fringe in One Good Turn - all places I know well and have great affection for. I think it is always so exciting to read a book and to know the geography of the place being written about so well that even I, with my questionable sense of direction, can feel the mental map I have of that place being bought to life on the page. Even when she uses settings I don't know so well - Cambridge in Case Histories, for example - her evocative descriptions makes you want to know the place better and spurs on a sense of adventure in the reader.

Last month, a new Kate Atkinson hit the shelves in the form of Life After Life and I cannot wait to indulge myself in a copy. I was thrilled when I heard she was exploring once again the world outside the Jackson Brodie universe and, from everything I've heard so far, I'm very excited about reading it. A tantalising campaign was built up in the weeks before the novel's release via a daily pin on Pinterest featuring imagery from the book and a short snippet from the text - it has certainly got me intrigued!

“In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense.” 
Kate Atkinson, Behind The Scenes at the Museum


  1. I've never heard of her before, but these books sound really great! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Happy A to Z blogging.

  2. See! You're still adding more to my plate! I did want to say that I also studied Lit. in university and it does highly affect our reading habits. I think anthropology might have been a better choice for me. Jennifer a.k.a. Urban Gypsy Girl

    1. Isn't it a relief when you can read 'for fun' again! I always advise my students to choose wisely when applying for Uni now as it can be the kiss of death for your passions, can't it? I'd love to study anthropology - maybe when I win the lottery (which is definitely going to happen, of course!) :0)