Sunday, 12 April 2009

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

Read: April 2009

Case Histories in one tweet-sized chunk.
Darkly comic and well characterised,
Case Histories introduces Jackson Brodie as he seeks to bring order to the world one case at a time.

Jackson Brodie is a private investigator with a conscience. Some even say he's “the last good man left.” Recently divorced, with failing health, he accepts cases without concern for whether he will be paid, and spends long hours visiting with his motley assortment of clients. For him, life is an eternal balancing act between the lost and found, debits and credits in a great accountancy exercise in human suffering. He has morose tastes in music – Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Gillian Welch – old singers who “understand pain.” He dreams of emigrating to a new life in France, of keeping his daughter Marlee safe from the horrors of the world. But none of this is going to happen, not while an old colonial relic like Binky Rain is calling him at all hours to help find her cats. And, on top of everything else, it appears that someone is trying to kill him...

Case Histories
is a finely characterised detective novel in which three old, unsolved cases are resurrected and gradually come together thanks to Jackson's hard work and empathetic ability. It is an exciting, complex mystery. It is also darkly humorous, set in the completely ridiculous world of Cambridge where characters are overcome with libido on a drive to Diss, Italian teenagers on their bicycles cause traffic hazards, and everyone working in customer service seems to be Australian. Kate Atkinson brings a healthy dose of scepticism to her narrative, filling it with melodrama, absurdity, and a sense that everything is far too normal. Most notable of all, Case Histories is shot through with a kind of simple, human morality not often found in high-posturing literature. Money is worthless, time is irrelevant, all that seems to matter is doing ones duty and trying to help those who need it in any way possible. It is a joy to find a book with so little pretension.

The prose however is a little clunky. It is instructive rather than demonstrative, packed with redundant description. The authorial standpoint is too distant from the characters, standing back from the action and describing everything the character sees, thinks, and does. Many sentences begin “Jackson thought....,” or “Jackson felt...” or “It seemed to Jackson...,” instead of cutting out these redundant openings and getting straight to the point of describing what it is he actually thinks, feels and sees. I wanted to get out a nice thick-nibbed red pen and edit the whole book down into a more stylishly flowing pace.

However, I have talked to others who absolutely loved the prose and cannot understand these criticisms. The structure and pace of the novel is intricate, conversational, and enjoyable so perhaps these stylistic questions don't even matter. I guess it all comes down to a question of taste: I have always been concerned, above all else, with style and narrative flow, often to the detriment of other factors.

More to the point, these problems, if indeed they are problems, are largely overcome by the books many virtues. The characterisation is first rate. Each character is a complex entity, seeing the world through their own eyes and understanding the same events in slightly differing ways. They try to be good and successful, but cannot help but see the worst in themselves. Bravado is delightfully absent. They have that delightful ability not to be able to see the good in themselves. And sometimes their perceptions are flawed.

This all makes
Case Histories fantastically ambiguous. There are big gaps in the plot where things happen which the reader is not told about, only left to surmise from what is not said. Case Histories is basically written as a series of snapshots of different conversations and ruminations, which interweave and overlap each other, gradually building a complex double (more like quintuple) helix of different lives lived in the face of extraordinary misfortune.

As Jackson stumbles between cases, seemingly unable to remain detached from the people he is working with, long kept secrets are divulged and characters begin to step out of the shade of history and live their lives completely once more. Perhaps things happen a little too easily, perhaps these long forgotten crimes fall into place a little too neatly, but that is not too much of a negative. The solutions are never as simple or obvious as they promise to be. And the point of
Case Histories is that it is about looking at the people behind the crimes; their lives, their hopes and fears. Answers are reached, not by shouting or bullying, not through pressurising or bribing, but by sitting down quietly with those involved and talking to them. It is a thoroughly human book, full of morality and good intentions; of trying to be the best you can be even when that is not the person you ever expected you would become.

7 out of 10

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