Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This was such an odd book. I started it a few months ago and had to put it aside as it simply didn’t engage me. Then, having finished another of Atkinson’s books (When WilHuman Croquetl There Be Good News) and not wanting to move away from her writing, I picked this one up again, started from the beginning once more, and couldn’t put it down.

Ostensibly the story of Isobel Fairfax, a young British woman who at an early age, along with her unattractive younger brother, Charles, “loses” her mother. Unlike Charles, Isobel appears to have the ability to slip through time, back to the Elizabethan period, and thus her life becomes this peculiar negotiation of time, space and people. Though the novel has this magic realist/mystical element it’s also a coming-of-age-story, a tale of familial and suburban dysfunction, murder, disappearances, secrets and lies, and an exploration of the ties that bind and tear us apart. The novel takes the reader on a remarkable journey through Isobel’s childhood, adolescence and that of her parents and forebears, exposing warts, flaws, mistakes, triumphs and tragedies.

Capturing the essence of the 1960s as well as war-time London, the characteristics of class, neighborhoods and the passion and heartbreak of relationships of all kind, this pseudo and quite dark fairy-tale is remarkable. Moving, haunting, at times funny, always strange and yet familiar, the novel shifts points of view from first to third person and a cocky omniscient narrator who through Isobel also functions like a Greek chorus, or a Shakespearian player setting the scene and passing commentary upon what unfolds. The book plays with reader expectations, genre, the notion of secrets, and in doing so examines the minutiae of the everyday, and explores the adult world from a child’s point of view and vice versa.

All the world and time is Atkinson’s stage, and this is certainly an ambitious and clever novel that offers alternative readings of not only scenes, but characters’ interpretations of events. What the reader accepts is up to her or him, but nothing is predictable.

The prose is simply lovely and some of the ideas expressed are timeless and erudite and have you reaching for a highlighter in order to recall them. This story won’t appeal to everyone, and it’s very different in so many ways from Atkinson’s other books, but if you cast aside expectations and go for the ride, it’s one you won’t forget in a hurry.

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Book Review: When Will There Be Good news? Kate Atkinson

I feel a bit sad this is the last time I will have the opportunity to “hang” with Kate Atkinson’s wonderful creation, the ex-army, ex-cop and PI Jackson Brodie. It’s not that this novel is the last in the series, but because I read them out of order (and that doesn’t affect the quality of the narrative or pleasure a reader gains from the prose and overalWhen Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)l story arc), it’s the final one I get to enjoy until Atkinson pulls her keyboard out and gets another one written – and I wish she would tout de suite! Till them, it’s au revoir Jackson…

Just as well then that When Will There Be Good News is a fabulous, ripper of a read that incorporates a few narrative threads and some fascinating characters.

The novel opens with an idyllic scene of a mother and her three kids walking country lanes. Undercurrents involving marital discord quickly disturb this pastoral picture but not in a distressing way – more in that well, “life is like that” manner. When the chapter ends in utter tragedy and we’re catapulted thirty years hence, there’s a feeling of both horror and relief that we’re spared only, in typical and wonderful Atkinson fashion, we’re not because the past always, always infects the present and this novel is no different. Part of the sheer joy of reading is in seeing just how they are connected and what unfolds.

Enter Jackson Brodie who, hot on the heels of another failed relationship and the start of a new one is seeking proof of paternity. Travelling north to get the DNA required, it’s no surprise to those familiar with Brodie’s habits, that he ends up in the wrongest (is that a word?) of wrong places at the wrongest of wrong times with catastrophic consequences.

But it’s also his ability to do that –  turn up like a good penny –  that links the stories as does the wonderful character of teenage Reggie – a girl who, when all is said and done, should be morose, despondent and at the least an emo, but who is infected with both a fine mind and an indefatigable joy in life as well a loyalty that can only be found in the hound that ends up accompanying her everywhere. Oh, and in her employer who is a simply magnificent character. On reflection, Dr (call me “Jo”) Joanna is like an ice-berg… She presents a portion of herself to the world (and we discover the reasons for this), but it’s the seven-eights below the water to which we’re slowly introduced that offer threat and promise. But when you cannot see what lies below the surface, how do you know which it is? And what happens when parts float to the surface? (cue Jaws theme)…

I cannot give too much away here, but while Reggie connects the seemingly disparate threads of the novel, it’s the Dr who’s the heart of the tale – one that threatens to stop beating….

When Reggie and Jackson’s paths collide, you just know something important is going to occur. And it does and it’s brutal, soulful, and ultimately incredibly satisfying.

Add to this a mixture of amazing other characters, including the hard-nosed (but wanting love) DCI Louisa, and this is a stunning read. Sublimely written, neatly tied together, I couldn’t put this one down.

I just wish there was another JB to lose myself in again…

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Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This is an extraordinary book that, for reasons I understand, has had a slightly mixed (but mostly very positive) reception.

An historical novel set in Burial RitesIceland during the early 1800s, it’s based on the true story of the last days of convicted murderer, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and the times she spends interred with the family of an official, Jon Jonsson, awaiting her execution.

Arriving at the farm one day against the wishes of  Jonsson and his wife, Margaret, and their two daughters, Agnes presents as a threat to the fairly closed and private family and the community of which they’re a part. Because of the brutality of the murder she’s accused of committing (two men bludgeoned and stabbed to death in a remote farmhouse), Agnes has been judged not only guilty but also monstrous and not fit to join civilisation before she even enters the house of her new captors.

However, Agnes is not what anyone expected – not the official’s wife, her daughters, or the assistant priest, Totti, who Agnes has requested tend to her spiritual needs in her last months.

As the days pass and autumn unfolds into winter, shared duties and the close confines of the living arrangements within the Jonsson home means that the cool and suspicious distance between prisoner and family/workers cannot be maintained. Facades crumble, assumptions about people are challenged and, most importantly, Agnes gets to tell her version of the events leading up to the murder.

Burial Rites is a powerful narrative that nonetheless gently captures and captivates the reader. The beautiful, haunting prose with its vivid descriptions of the stark but stunning landscape and weather is juxtaposed against the always awful reality of both Agnes’ approaching death and the murders that underpin the present situation. Characters are gorgeously drawn, fiction and fact interwoven through the insertion of letters, quotes from Icelandic sagas and accounts from those actually involved, melding into a story that is so affecting and yet laden with meaning as well.

I found the book impossible to put down. It was slow in parts – especially at the beginning where each member of the Jonsson family is presented and Agnes is introduced “offstage”. The peace and ordinariness that marks the Jonsson’s lives is soon to be shattered and I loved the gentle build to this point, the setting up of anxiety, tension and righteousness as well. We first “see” Agnes through the Jonssons’ eyes, having had our perceptions coloured by theirs. It’s a clever strategy and the way Kent has Agnes defy these is subtle and heart-wrenching. It makes the inevitability that the book finally tumbles towards all the more searing and difficult to contemplate let alone finally accept.

I thought this book was a masterpiece and have found Kent, in the interviews she’s given over the novel’s success, to be modest and fascinating as she explains why she wrote the book and discusses its reception.

A superb, challenging and evocative book that lives in your head and heart long after you put it down.


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Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

After feeling a little ambivalent about Wolf Hall (in that, I adored the subject matter, Thomas Cromwell: his life, family, rise to power and the machinations in the court of Henry VIII, but found the style of writing and point of view hard to adjust to – mainly because of the proliferation of the personal pronoun “he” which meant I sometimes had to re-read conversations to get the gist of who “he” (usually Cromwell) was – the result being a frustrating reading experience), I approached Bring Up the Bodies with a healthy amount of scepticism but also a desire to like the book.

I did. Very much.

Whether it’s because I grew used to Mantel’s unusual story-telling method – again, the personal pronoun “he” features (but, this time and very helpfully, it’s often followed by “Cromwell” so you know to whom it refers) or because I was swept up in the tale is irrelevant. The fact is Bringing Up the Bodies is a unique and fascinating take on a very well known period of history: namely, the swift decline in the relationship between Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and the consequences the English court must face (as well as Cromwell professionally and personally) after supplanting a lawful Catholic Queen with a protestant substitute. The politics, the religious and international stakes, the jostling for power of the various nobles, the developing factions, the role of class, and the importance and potential betrayal of family are all explored in this book.

As Anne Boleyn’s power and thus status at court declines and those whom she trusted turn on her, and her every word and gesture is endowed with meaning, we’re given insight into Cromwell’s role in this – the way he strips himself of emotion in order to perform his king’s will, but not, one feels, compassion for the queen he ultimately topples. Cromwell has never been more powerful nor, he recognises, in more danger when, as a former working class man’s son, he is able to shake the highest limbs on the class tree and lop them as well. Thus the reader is left with Cromwell’s prescience of the fate that awaits him and which, no doubt, Mantel will explore in the third book in this series.

Knowing this period of history as well as I do didn’t spoil this read for me, on the contrary, it added a particular frisson and that might be the reason I may stop with this book. Cromwell, as a historical figure, was rather black and white – he was bones without flesh, lines without intonation, a figure without heart. Mantel has changed all that. As a character in her books, he lives and breathes and we understand his reasoning, his nobility, his barely repressed propensity for violence and, above all, his empathy and loyalty. I have enjoyed his rise so much, I don’t want to watch him fall – something that’s as inevitable as the seasons. It’s testimony to the power of Mantel’s prose and her take on this history, that in relation to Cromwell, I wish she would change it!

Wonderful, powerful and poetic.

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