Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, 2004)

1970 and Olivia and her older sister, Amelia, camp out on the lawn of their parent's house in Cambridge. The next morning Olivia has disappeared into thin air. 1994 and teenage Laura is stabbed to death for no apparent reason in the offices of her father’s law firm whilst temping for him. 1979 and young teenage mother, Michelle, snaps and plants an axe into her husband’s head when he wakes the baby. Three separate crimes linked by seemingly little more than the fact that they have surfaced in Jackson Brodie’s life at the same time. Brodie is a former police inspector turned private eye. On the death of their father, Amelia and her sister, Julia, discover Olivia’s toy in his desk and want Brodie to find out what happened to the young girl. Overweight father, Theo, can’t shake his obsession with Laura’s slaying and wants her killer found. Shirley wants to track down her niece, who was taken into care when her mother was jailed. And along with his wife running off with another man, taking his daughter with her, Brodie has his own case histories to contend with – the death of his sister, snatched, raped and dumped into the canal on her way home from the bus stop and the fate of his brother. Dealing with other people’s cases is proven a burden, especially when somebody seems to be trying to kill him.

Case Histories is a rich and layered book. The various case histories swirl around and entwine with each other through the central figure of Jackson Brodie. The prose is excellent and the characterization well developed. Brodie, in particular, is a complex and appealing investigator, with his own foibles and faults, but a decent sense of right. Atkinson’s style is to provide an enormous amount of back story and descriptive narrative, some of which ploughs the same ground repeatedly. With respect to personal taste it’s not my preferred mode of storytelling – I favour more tell and less show, and the prose to be much tighter. For my money, a hundred pages could be edited from the book and the story itself would be little affected. I have the same feeling when I read Tana French. That said, I appreciate that this is a style issue and Atkinson does this form of storytelling very well. This raises the problem of whether to judge the book on its merits or my enjoyment. If on its merits, and if this is your kind of thing, then it’s probably a 4.5 star book, but based on my taste it’s a 3.5. Interestingly, I’ve warmed to the book post-read, as the various layers and intersections condense with reflection, but at the time of reading I found the overly long and repetitive description tiresome. Overall, an enjoyable, but overly long, story with an interesting central character.


Dorte H said...

Interesting review. If you read it as crime fiction, the middle part may seem slow and disappointing, but I love her wordy style. I admire Hemingway´s style, but if I never read anything else, I would starve. So one of my favourite quotations is Hamlet´s "Words, words, words." :D

Anonymous said...

yes, indeed, a thought-provoking review. I read this book a few years ago and was totally absorbed by the parts you describe in your review. However, I felt the "crime" plot (the more action-based elements that come into it later) are less successful, as so often is the case when "mainstream" fiction authors get packaged as "crime". So oddly, I felt that the back stories were successful whereas the crime sections were not. I have not read any further Jackson Brodie novels though I do own the next two, something makes me reluctant but I should get on with it I suppose.


Anonymous said...

Rob - Thanks very much. Dorte and Maxine are right; this is a really thought-provoking review, and you make interesting points here.