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January 11, 2011

The most odious of book reviewing acts

Last week, I committed the most odious of book reviewing acts: I wrote the line “Kate Atkinson is one of the best contemporary novelists in the English language” without any qualification. Rendering the line meaningless, though I meant every bit of it, but I was still too drunk on the sheer joy of having read Kate Atkinson to actually go to the effort of explaining myself. And even though I’m very tired right now because there is a small person in my house who has been coughing all night, all week, I want to rectify my misstep. I want to tell you why Kate Atkinson is one of the best contemporary novelists in the English language.

She has an ear for the peculiarities of speech, of regional dialects and expressions. She can write whole conversations between characters who never use words with more than one syllable, and the words they use is usually “fuck”, and it’s clear that she delights in the trick of it, she hears the poetry. She creates voices, and it’s from these voices that her characters emerge whole. Her narratives inhabits these characters’ brains, and no two voices sound the same– in her latest Started Early, Took My Dog, we find our favourite hardened Private Detective, a female middle-aged former police-superintendent, an aging actress in the throes of senility, plus all the people who surround these people, perspectives shifting to show everybody from every angle. So a panorama, but with a soundtrack, which is a regular cacophony, but music more than noise.

Her narratives are whimsical, delightful– Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins upon the instant of Ruby Lennox’s conception, her exclaiming, “I exist!” And also contains the line “Albert collected good days the way other people collected coins, or sets of postcards”, which is my definition of pure light. In Started Early, Took My Dog, we celebrate afternoon teas, and there are plenty of scones, but then let’s examine Britain’s underside: corrupt police officers, neglected children, murdered woman (with blood and gore), inequality, poverty, heartbreak and abject loneliness. This book contains an epigraph by the Yorkshire Ripper. Kate Atkinson never flinches, in fact, at times she borders on sensational, but her characters are so real, and their language so unbelievably rich that we give it to her.

She fixates on the past, every single one of her books jumping back in time as though it’s just as simple as looking over one’s shoulder. The past is always there, its mysteries leaking into the present day, its unsolved crimes contaminating the soil. And yet at the same time, she’s so much a writer of the present, a chronicler, her books remarkably current, their pop-culture references inconspicuously embedded within the stunning prose. The stories she tells are of the way we live now, but within these stories she loves the best bits, and what’s sepia-toned is never sentimental– Atkinson’s past is never an idyll. Sanctuary is only to be found in the stories we tell, the connections we find, in the sense we make of the chaos after the fact.

5 thoughts on “The most odious of book reviewing acts”

  1. Kristin says:

    Oh, I love her so much too. She doesn’t need any qualification, but you are right on the mark!

  2. patricia says:

    Ditto. No explanation needed, really, but still, much appreciated, and so well expressed. Your blog post is just as enjoyable as reading Ms. Atkinson’s books.

  3. Nathalie says:

    Enticing! I’ve added her to my mysteries wishlist.

  4. Alyssa says:

    I have only read two of Kate Atkinson’s books – I loved both – so it is wonderful to know that there is much more of her wonderful writing still waiting for me.

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