By Kate Atkinson
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
You know the old saying, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’?
Books, like people, are never perfect. They are rarely even excellent. The lucky ones, the once-in-a-generation books, are perfect along only one axis, but those are usually deficient along most others.
None of the Great Books are perfect; often, though, they are powerful in many dimensions. They are well-plotted, well-written, the characters are strong, the imagining vivid. What makes books really excellent is never that they are perfect, but often that they are consistently strong.
But what about books that are only excellent in one or two ways? Books that are lopsided?
I have great fondness for lopsided books. Not mediocre books – I resent those – but imperfect ones. Good books, strong books, but ones with clear and conspicuous failings.
Kate Atkinson has only recently bubbled up into my consciousness. I don’t remember how I first heard of her, but it was one of those things: as soon as I had first registered her name, I started hearing it everywhere.
Atkinson, a novelist, writes both stand-alone novels and a series of murder mysteries centered around the fictional detective Jackson Brodie. I purchased one of each, but I’ve been going through a bit of a murder mystery kick lately, so I started with the detective novel. ‘Case Histories’ is the first novel of the series, and is non-traditional in structure: rather than following one mystery, it blends three together:
On a summer night in 1970, 3-year-old Olivia Land vanishes from a tent in the backyard where she has been camping with her sister, Amelia. Her body will never be found. One summer day in 1994, 18-year-old Laura Wyre is working at her father’s law office when a man in a bright yellow sweater walks in and cuts her throat. He is never caught. One evening in 1979, Michelle Fletcher, a young mother whose world is unraveling into post-partum chaos, splits her husband’s head with an ax after he wakes their baby.
All three of these cases will converge, decades later, on Jackson Brodie. Brodie, who has retired from the police force and is working as a private detective, is something of a mess. His wife has left him for another man, and he is too chaotic to be a great parent to his beloved daughter, Marlee. His most reliable client is Binky Rain, an octogenarian with no family who is convinced that someone is stealing her cats.
Atkinson is a better writer than she is a plotter. ‘Case Histories’ eschews the tropes of normal murder novels. Important events happen off-screen; the murderer will not necessarily turn out to be a known character; bad guys are not always brought to justice, and narrators are not reliable. All of which might have been ok, except that the story-telling is uneven. Atkinson leans too much on sudden resolutions and improbable coincidences. Protagonists from different stories wander in and out of each other’s plot lines, people inherit improbably large sums of money suddenly, and, weirdly, everyone seems to live on the same block in Cambridge (England).
Too much important stuff happens off-screen. As a technique, the sudden jump forward to a later point in the action can be effective, but a little goes a long way. If you use it a lot, if a lot of your chapters end on cliff-hangers, only to be picked up on the next page two months later, it’s jarring for the reader. It starts to feel like watching a TV show while skipping episodes.
However, Atkinson is a great writer. Her prose is a blast to read: funny, readable, colorful. She writes well – the prose is sophisticated and excellent – but her tone is conversational, idiomatic. Her imagination is vivid: Atkinson prefers to spend her words inside her characters’ psyches, which she depicts with winning detail.
There are real and salient problems with the book, unmistakable and frustrating. However, in a weird way, they only made me like ‘Case Histories’ more. Atkinson’s prose is so engaging and lively that the plot feels a little beside the point. Most murder mysteries, the plot is the whole point; in ‘Case Histories’, the plot is merely an excuse for the characters to interact with each other via Atkinson’s sparkling writing.
I genuinely believe that, if ‘Case Histories’ had the robust and well-paced plot it deserved, I would love it less. There is something idiosyncratic about the slap-dash plot against the vividly-imagined interior lives of the characters, something charming. The point of this book is the prose: its light-heartedness, its humor, its specificity:
“Julia started sneezing again. It was always embarrassing when Julia had a sneezing fit, one after the other, explosive, uncontrollable sounds, like a cannon firing. Amelia had once heard someone say that you could tell what a woman’s orgasm would be like if you heard her sneeze. (As if you would want to know). Just recollecting this thought made her uncomfortable. In case this was common knowledge, Amelia had made a point ever since then of never sneezing in public if she could help it. “For God’s sake, take more Zyrtec,” she said crossly to Julia.” (p. 127)
“He felt absurdly vulnerable, lying there in the chair, prostrate and helpless, subject to the whims of Sharon and her silent dental nurse…Jackson 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…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?). Panic made him swallow and gag on his own saliva. Sharon returned the chair to an upright position and said, “All right?” her head cocked to one side in an affectation of concern while he choked noisily. The silent dental nurse handed him a plastic cup of water.” (p. 146)
The truth is, despite its deficiencies as a murder mystery, I loved this book. I am absolutely going to read more of this series – the prose is irresistible. Atkinson isn’t a perfect novelist, and ‘Case Histories’ isn’t a Great Book, but it was so much fun to read. It is lopsided in the best way, lopsided in a way that makes you love it more. It’s special.