Anyone who knows me knows that I live and breathe Kate Atkinson.
I wrote my (rather rambling) honours thesis on her work, mostly on my favourite piece of modern literature – her second book, Human Croquet. I have kept up religiously with her forays into stunningly crafted crime fiction, and exchanged a few e-mails with her back when I was doing my thesis – an experience that had me blubbering with happiness (not in, like, a weird way, just in an “Oh my God, I am speaking to my hero” type way).
When Will There Be Good News? is the third book to feature grim Northerner, sometime private-eye, hapless lover, and, in my humble opinion, sexy, sexy mofo by the name of Jackson Brodie. “A good man is hard to find,” – Atkinson said of Brodie in an old interview, and it’s no wonder that one of the chapters of the new book is titled exactly like that – a throwback to Flannery O’Connor and to the general frustration with human relationships that this book embodies.
Like all of Atkinson’s work, When Will There Be Good News? is littered with sly allusions, nudges, wink-winks, and deeper riffs on literary culture as it has been shaped by the centuries and as it exists today. Atkinson’s wry humour is once again undercut by what she has once described as a “tremendous heart of darkness” (she was speaking of Human Croquet when she said this, but I think one can apply it to her work as a whole) – her greatest achievement isn’t so much that she keeps the two halves in perfect balance, but that she unravels and unwraps our present and future and presents it as a cut diamond with multiple brilliant facets, each stunning, warm, or pretty freaking scary.
Alongside Jackson, the latest book features two compelling heroes – Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, a character we were first introduced to in One Good Turn (but, honestly, you don’t need to have read the previous Jackson Brodie books to know what’s going on here), and teenager Reggie Chase. In Louise, Atkinson has managed to create a perfectly frustrating character you end up rooting for anyway. And in genuine Atkinsonian fashion, Reggie Chase is a tragic, wickedly funny sort of gal.
In this book, Atkinson also introduces us to a kind of Madonna In The Blood – Dr. Joanna Hunter, the only survivor of a horrible attack in a beautiful country field (Atkinson does amazing things with settings, when she focuses on them), whose disappearance thirty years on is what gets the plot rolling.
Both Monroe and Hunter are married to attractive men – Louise has settled with an Irish doctor who knowingly or unknowingly pushes her buttons, and Joanna lives in a lovely home with Glaswegian Neil, “handsome in a rough, slightly battered kind of way” (they need to have Gerard Butler play him in the film version), with dark secrets and shady characters swirling about him.
Reggie, meanwhile, is a virgin, an orphan, and student, in love with Dr. Hunter’s lush domesticity and beautiful baby, but not in a stupid, moon-eyed sort of way. Reggie is the perfect plucky hero, a keen, diminutive, determined survivor of human tragedy.
When Will There Be Good News? is, like much of Atkinson’s work, highly ambivalent toward marriage, especially women in marriage. Regina’s virginity is significant, in that sense, but ultimately, just as ambivalent. “Oh that Reggie,” I initially thought, “she’s powerful because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be abused by a man yet. This isn’t a great revelation, is it?” Except then I remembered that her own older brother has done a fine job of abusing her already.
I think the point that Atkinson is trying to make here is that romantic and sexual relationships are not the problem per se, it’s the way that people behave towards each other as soon as the slightest power-differential is introduced that results in monstrous consequences.
Yet the book is still a good reminder of how romance isn’t all it’s cracked out to be nevertheless. At worst, a disgruntled hubbie shoots up a children’s birthday party. At best, a hero finds herself having made the awkward decision of settling with a nice man who’s so horribly wrong for her she begins to act like a punk-ass teenager in the presence of a stodgy father figure.
If you think that’s OMIGOD sexist, consider that Jackson Brodie’s loves do not fare much better: he has survived an acrimonious divorce, an equally acrimonious break-up that may or may not have resulted in a cruel deception, and his present situation is a question mark that ultimately unfurls into one of the book’s several feel-bad endings.
The writing itself is lithe and funny and as sharply observant of today as it is of yesterday. There is one brilliant, ghostly scene that stands apart from the rest and reminded me of Human Croquet in a way that made my toes curl up with delight, but the overall realism is equally appealing.
“I piss therefore I am,” declares Jackson after his catheter is taken out (oh, yeah, there’s a nasty, nasty accident in this book). Louise’s new place has a “bland corporate luxury” that she finds “strangely appealing” (oh, how I understand you, Louise). “I’m a goddess to him now,” Dr. Hunter says about her little son, “but one day I’ll be the annoying old woman who wants to be taken to the supermarket.” And Neil Hunter, living in a nicely fixed-up Victorian house, remarks that “if he had been alive when the house was built he would have been making fires and blacking boots.”
This book does make one feel desperate for a sequel. It’s not unsatisfying, but if there is one thing that Kate Atkinson does better than everything else that she already does so well, it’s the ache and longing bit. Especially at the end.
And I am aching and I am longing. Vivat Regina indeed.