Wednesday, February 12, 2020

When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson

The third Jackson Brodie novel (after Case Histories and One Good Turn) is another compelling read, by turns warm and funny, then utterly devastating. We start with a typically rich and vivid prologue of a mother and three young children, in just a handful of pages sketching in their characters, their peculiarities, their whole lives - before something really awful hits them.

That awfulness then haunts the rest of the book. We have Dr Joanna Hunter ("Call me Jo"), the lovely, high-achieving GP and new mum. There's Reggie Chase, the teenage orphan helping Jo and baby. There's Jo's useless husband Neil and his dodgy business - so far, so column in the Guardian. Then there's Mrs MacDonald, Reggie's former teacher now terminally ill and all set to embrace the Rapture. There's Reggie's ne'er-do-well brother, Billy, caught up in something criminal. And then there's Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe - returning from the last book - who has married the wrong man.

As past crises resurface and new crises erupt, Dr Hunter and the baby go missing without trace. Reggie is keen to investigate where Louise is not, and her one hope is the man whose life she saved in a train crash - former copper and detective, Jackson Brodie. Brodie spends a lot of the book on the periphery of the main plot, which only adds to the suspense. The longer we no absolutely nothing about the missing woman and her child, the more it's like twisting a knife. Atkinson is brilliant and hooking us with this stuff, offering us something keenly observed and fun, and then dropping a bomb. The light froth of the book is peppered with sudden, visceral horror, and the sense of threat is pervasive.

It's tricky to say much more without spoiling things, but the end hinges on one particular character acting with chilling ruthless steel, and getting away with it. It extraordinary and shocking, and yet looking back at all that's led up to it, inevitable. That's the thing about Atkinson's books: they're deceptively simple-seeming but intricate and clever. Delightful and devastating.

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