Sunday, September 15, 2019

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

We begin with three distinct tragedies. First, in 1970, a three-year old disappears from her family home. Then, in 1994, a teenager with a summer job in the office of her solicitor dad is brutally murdered by a man who is never caught. Thirdly, in 1979, an exhausted teenage mum cracks under the strain and attacks her husband with an axe...

The startling thing about these three awful happenings, each one in itself enough to sustain a mystery novel, is how funny they are before things kick off. Atkinson, whose more recent Transcription I adored, has a gift for telling, comic detail which only makes us feel the awfulness more keenly. In the first few pages, she sets up a household of wayward young daughters and their academic dad.
"What he actually did in there [his office in the family home] was a mystery to all of them. Something so important, apparently, that his home life was trifling in comparison. Their mother said he was a great mathematician, at work on a piece of research that would one day make him famous, yet on the rare occasions when the study door was left open and they caught a glimpse of their father at work, all he seemed to be doing was sitting at his desk, scowling into empty space." (p. 20)
Brilliantly, Atkinson also makes sure we're paying attention from the off. On page 18, we're told in passing that these children's grandmother "succumbed to stomach cancer" a few years back. On page 24, we're told that the grandmother had also asked her son-in-law about stomach pains - him being a doctor, but unfortunately of maths.
"Cornered at a tea table covered with a Maltese lace cloth and loaded with macaroons, Devon scones and seed cake, Victor finally confirmed, 'Indigestion, I expect, Mrs Vane,' a misdiagnosis that she accepted with relief." (p. 24)
We're being ensnared in a greater mystery than what happened in each awful case. Since this is also the start of a novel, we assume they're all connected somehow - and more than simply by each taking place in Cambridge.

At last, on page 69 we're introduced to Jackson Brodie, ex-army and ex-police, now private investigator. Largely but not always from his point of view we explore these cases and the effect of such awfulness on other people since. Brodie has his own issues - his estranged wife taking their daughter away to the other side of the world, and something else he keeps buried deep.

As well as him, there are chapters told from the perspective of Amelia, the chronically repressed and now grown-up sister of the vanished three year-old, and Theo the ever-grieving father of the murdered teen. We see them from Brodie's perspective and him from theirs, adding depth and nuance to the untangling of secrets. Admittedly, that structure also causes some problems: we keep jumping back and forward in time as we catch up on someone's perspective. So there's a moment when Theo discovers an unlikely character has one of Brodie's business cards; a few pages later we're in Brodie's perspective and learn why that card was handed over.

If that felt a little awkward, it's the only criticism I can find. This is a wholly absorbing novel, demanding to be rattled through. It's funny and surprising and emotionally powerful, the revelations in the last act utterly devastating. And yet, for all their impact, Atkinson also weaves in a little hope and redemption, and some quite unexpected sex.

This is the first of a series of Jackson Brodie novels - the latest published earlier this year. But Case Histories ends with everything so perfectly resolved I'm intrigued to see how Atkinson plunges the poor man back into untangling other people's misery. I shall be back for One Good Turn.

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