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September 24, 2008

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

“Homer was open on her lap but she was watching Coronation Street” is the definition of Kate Atkinson’s writing, I think. Her literary roots are deeper than deep, but she’s so fully aware of the actual world. So fully aware, as well, of how frequently these roots surface in life, of how relevant literature and literary-ness still truly are, and in the most unexpected ways and places.

Atkinson’s first Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread award, and is one of the finest novels ever written in the English language. I liked her second novel Human Croquet a little bit better. In 2005 she shifted gears a bit with Case Histories, the first of her crime novels about Jackson Brodie, which I enjoyed as well as its follow-up One Good Turn. And now with the publication of the series’ third novel When Will There Be Good News?, I officially retire from asking, “When’s she heading back into real literature?” One bit of good news: Kate Atkinson’s new novel is as brilliant as anything else she’s done before.

There is a solidity to When Will There Be Good News? that was missing from the previous two Jackson Brodie novels. They were about coincidence, connections, the most unexpected links, and were both infinitely readable (devourable) but lacking the containment and control distinct to literary fiction. The shape of this novel is different, tighter, which is not to say standard or unsurprising. Mystery has always been at the heart of whatever Atkinson writes, and she is so deft at bending time and place to create just the right amount of space, to give clues but never answers.

The solidity comes from the novel’s more singular focus, on the disappearance of a doctor and her baby. The twist in this being that the doctor has not even been reported missing, but sixteen year-old Reggie Chase, the mother’s helper, is determined that something is not right. Which is usually the case for Reggie, whose mother is dead, whose scumbag brother has set scary thugs on her tail, who finds herself giving Jackson Brodie CPR after a train wreck. The wrong place at the wrong time, always, though this time the right one. Having saved Jackson’s life, Reggie refuses to absent herself from it, hoping to take advantage of his skills as a private detective to help find Dr. Hunter.

Reggie has ample reason to worry about her employer, though she doesn’t know most of it yet. That as a child Dr. Hunter had been the sole survivor of an attack that killed her family, and the killer has just been released from jail after thirty years. That Dr. Hunter’s husband is involved in shady dealings, burning down his businesses to collect insurance, and there’s every chance he’d pull a similar stunt with his wife. Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe knows all this well, however, though she is surprised to find the case reconnecting her with Jackson, the two rather gruff police types having flirted with attraction in the previous book.

Reggie, the hard-luck A-level studying orphan is a marvelous creation, Homer on her lap and Corrie on the telly; she is indomitable, fearless and smart, and so funny we forget how perilous her situation is. That such a character, with that mouth and that attitude, is book-smart too makes for a perfect marriage between two equally brilliant but quite different things. In Kate Atkinson’s work, we can ask for that much, though Atkinson knows also there can be too much, so the world goes. “Just become something happens once doesn’t mean it won’t happen again,” and people like Reggie Chase, Louise Monroe, Joanna Hunter and Jackson Brodie know this. That the world doles it out unfairly willy-nilly, cruelty and brutality altogether ubiquitous, and to think otherwise is just naivete (and luck).

Jackson spends much of the novel unconscious or out of the picture, Louise Monroe serving as the crime solver, day saver. As strong a character as Reggie, she is funny and dry, wary of the world she sees through her work. Of her marriage as well, to a man she’s not particularly in love with, however he is good and safe. And she’s finding herself obsessed with women who’ve been victims of men quite otherwise, women like Joanna Hunter who’ve found themselves as prey.

What Kate Atkinson does with language, with allusion, I’ve yet to see another author do– it’s a kind of mastery. Her turns at genre writing demonstrating her ability to plot a plot, and she does that here better than I’ve ever seen her do before. The first of her crime novels in which “genre” is quite irrelevant, really. If this was the first book by Atkinson you’d ever encountered, you’d forget genre and just fall in love with it. You would fall in love with her.

One thought on “When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson”

  1. ragdoll says:

    How can I not bring that book to the top of my reading pile after that review?

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