April 28, 2011


by Kate Atkinson
495 pages, Black Swan

Review by Marc Nash

Kate Atkinson is that rare beast. A genre (thriller) writer who crosses over in the literary. Nothing much happens thriller-wise until about page 300, other than a very clever double set-up for two of the three main characters that the book focuses on. So the thriller element kind of creeps up on you. What you do get is three beautiful character studies weaving in and out of one another. The first is semi-retired PI Jackson Brodie who Atkinson fans will be familiar with from three earlier novels. The second is a stunningly well-realised recently retired women detective, plump, single and unloved. These are the two characters who both pull off a deed that echoes one another with a dizzying set of consequences. The third character is a middle-range actress, succumbing to the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

All three characters are towards the upper end of the age spectrum. All three wistfully look back on their lives, the choices, the aspirations, the mistakes. The events that happen here partially emerge from the unresolved parts of their lives. The thriller element itself, also an unsolved crime from thirty years ago. Because we have met Brodie before, his tale I maybe find the least satisfying, as I think Atkinson has had to squeeze the rind a bit more to keep finding fresh things to say about him. In some places I think he contradicts himself, but hey, we're human beings right? We are contrary sometimes. The actress also maybe is a bit unstartling in her portrayal of someone suffering from Alzheimers. A bit writing senility by numbers perhaps, bathos as much as pathos.

But it is the retired detective who perhaps makes the largest journey within the novel and easily the most satisfying one. It's slightly frustrating that I can't describe the event in the present that sends her spinning wildly from her regular domestic cosiness, since to do so would be a spoiler. But the seemingly impulsive act is gradually revealed to have very deep seated roots and is fascinatingly unravelled by a precision drip release from the author. Simply masterful. Lie back and bask in a wonderful character study and the new relationship she develops which is just so endearing it almost bought a lump to this hardened hack's throat.

I recommend you read "Started Early, Took My Dog" and Atkinson's other three Jackson Brodie books, "Case Studies", "A Good Turn" and "When Will There Be Good News?" She is quite possibly the most underrated British author writing today.

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