The world of Kate Atkinson’s novels is distinctive. This isn’t because it’s confined to a particular place (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, 1995, her first novel, was set in York, her others in ‘Arden’, Dundee and Cambridge), although geography is important, and she is precise about history, socio-economics, climate, architecture and even street-plans. What’s consistent is a texture: familial, claustrophobic, everyday, teeming with dysfunctional characters, and rendered with an equivocal sensuality. Everything is felt on the skin, smelled, tasted; the world invades consciousness through the characters’ helplessly responsive senses, and this is at once exhilarating and disgusting. Intelligence, mostly possessed by unhappy girls, doesn’t guarantee immunity: they are bundled into scratchy, tight clothes (a ‘liberty bodice securely strapped to her still cherub-new skin … white cotton socks which cut her fat little legs in half’) and have to eat ‘watery scrambled eggs, like lemon vomit’. Sex is seen as part of this sensual excess; it’s not transformative or transcendent.
Atkinson has established interesting territory for herself in terms of genre, too. In the earlier novels – perhaps to excess in Emotionally Weird (2000), her third, and in the short-story collection Not the End of the World (2002) – the narrative voice draws flirtatious attention to itself and its devices. It skates with panache from the confessional intimacy of an inner voice (derived from every misunderstood girl since Jane Eyre) to omniscient overview, swallowing generations and decades in disrespectful summary: ‘Madge had escaped long ago by marrying an adulterous bank clerk in Mirfield and producing another three children.’ Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins, in homage to Tristram Shandy, with Ruby Lennox’s conception; from her mother’s womb, she offers an articulate survey of her relations and neighbourhood. (The chapter ends with her mother, Bunty, mouthing ‘a silent Munch-like scream’ when she realises she’s pregnant again.) The passages that fill in piecemeal the story of four generations of Ruby’s sprawling family take the form of a series of footnotes. In Human Croquet (1997) a range of alternative climaxes to its story are given.
At the same time, the energies of Atkinson’s writing are drawn from everyday solidities. In Human Croquet ‘the reeking camphor insides’ of Vinny’s wardrobe, a metaphor for the cluttered history of those who live in the house, are described in convincing detail: ‘I’m gripped by a strange fascination and can’t help but finger the ancient crepe day dresses, hanging limp and lifeless, and stroke the musty wool costumes and coatees that are evidence of a more stylish Vinny than the one that now snails around the house in dusty print overall and fur-lined, zippered slippers.’ In Emotionally Weird, a novel of student life in Dundee, Effie discovers a young man asleep in the house where she’s babysitting: ‘I sniffed the lanolin of his rough wool sweater and the slaughtered smell of his jacket. I inspected his ears (clean, shell-like), his fingernails (dirty, bitten), the faint tide-mark of grime on his neck, the ingrained oil on his mechanic’s hands, inhaled the faint aroma of marijuana on his breath.’
Atkinson’s novels tend to concern family networks held together by women, with the men participating more or less reluctantly. There are some enjoyable set-piece family rituals: an ill-timed 1966 wedding in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, for instance, where the men drift away one by one to watch the World Cup final. George Lennox, Ruby’s father, is an unsatisfactory husband but a convincing character, unsympathetic but entirely believable. There’s no sentimentality in the treatment of the women, either: unloving, frightening mothers and thwarted, vengeful housewives are Atkinson specialities.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum sets up a characteristic contrast between two models of motherhood. Alice, Ruby’s great-grandmother, is imaginative and frustrated by the daily grind of housework and childcare. Rachel, who takes Alice’s place after she runs off with an itinerant French photographer, is narrow-minded, unfeeling and repressively violent in her management of the children. The novel takes Alice’s side, but it appreciates Rachel’s sturdiness, her effective housekeeping, her good baking. Rachel holds the family together, finds them a decent home and turns them out looking presentable, even if she doesn’t do it out of anything easily recognisable as love. And, after all, Alice did abandon her children (they think she’s dead). The novel doesn’t supply any resolution: there’s no softening of Rachel, and the children hate her. They spend their lives yearning for Alice, who in turn spends her life yearning for them, and looking for them in all the wrong places.
Atkinson finds at the centre of family life an in-built disappointment, an emotional investment in what is missing. Charles and Isobel in Human Croquet collect things belonging to their absent mother – a shoe, a powder compact, a lock of hair – but fail to make a life for themselves in the present. In the short story ‘Temporal Anomaly’, Marianne, who has been dead for six months, gets her once ordinary life back, and now knows to appreciate ‘day after day as precious and as delicate as a rope of pearls’. The fantastic plot twists – the missing are dead and the dead are only missing, long-lost twins turn up unexpectedly, babies have been substituted at birth – are more than indulgences or decorations. Atkinson certainly takes a formalist’s pleasure in the structuring devices of Shakespearean comedy, but these devices work, when they work, because she has thought about questions of singularity, repetition, origins, chance, memory.
The spirit of her books is essentially comic, boisterous even, rich with grotesque inventions and exaggerations: Ruby’s twin cousins, uncommunicative and staring, read her thoughts; Isobel’s Scottish neighbour bakes crazy quantities of cake to compensate for her unhappy marriage; a student called Bob lives on jars of baby food – ‘no cooking, no washing-up, no thought at all’. And yet her books are full of death and cruelty and disaster. The treatment of war in Behind the Scenes at the Museum is especially effective; Atkinson’s chirpiness and resilient, smart sentences seem to manage this material better than the more usual solemnity, straining after awe. Frank, Ruby’s grandfather, survives long hours in a shell-hole on the Somme (where a rat swims round a corpse in ‘lazy circles’) by remembering a childhood swimming lesson in the Ouse. ‘When, some time later, he staggered into a dressing-station and announced to a nurse that he was dead the nurse merely said: "Go and sit over in that corner with that lieutenant then . . .”’ In Human Croquet, the children’s grief at their mother’s disappearance is woven into the disintegration of life in ‘Arden’ without her. There’s an unbearable exchange when their father returns after his own long absence and says, ‘with a hopeful little smile’, introducing his new wife: ‘I’ve got someone I want you to meet . . . She’s waiting in the car.’ The children think for one long moment that it’s Mummy.
Atkinson doesn’t use language neutrally, slackly. Her style sometimes staggers: in Emotionally Weird and in the short stories, word-play and narrative games sometimes take over. But when she has an imaginative engagement with the story, her prose is alive with intelligent and ironic observation. A harassed mother realises too late that she was supposed to make scones for a Sunday school outing: ‘What would they think?’ she worried ‘in a fit of irritation’, and ‘pushed her hair back from her forehead as if she would have liked to erase her mind’. After the officer he used to talk to is killed, a young private takes to sitting outside some kennels at night, and ‘had to stop himself from rolling up a cigarette and passing it to the big, polite dog’ who keeps him company. A lodger ‘is a travelling salesman and we must hope that someday soon he will wake up and find that he’s been transformed into a giant insect’. A wife engages in ‘feverish housework’: ‘Someone take the key out of her back,’ her sister-in-law sighs.
In all Atkinson’s books there have been mysteries to be uncovered. In Case Histories, her latest novel, which takes the form of a series of dossiers on unclosed criminal investigations into missing persons, there is an actual detective, an ex-policeman turned private investigator. Jackson Brodie is a gentle 45-year-old, not coping at all well with the end of his marriage and the prospect of his eight-year-old daughter, Marlee, going to live in New Zealand. He doesn’t cope very well either with seeing Marlee dressed up ‘like a hooker’ for a birthday party, dancing sexily to Christina Aguilera. He gets a contact on the force to check whether his wife’s new boyfriend (the kind, he thinks, who would have a goatee and know people with a gîte in the Ardèche) is on the paedophile register.
One of the resolutions to Case Histories is in Jackson’s acceptance that it’s normal for Marlee to be chatting about boy bands on her pink Barbie mobile one minute, paddling in the sea and dripping ice cream on the car seats the next. Jackson has to learn to live with these contradictions: little girls cannot be ‘kept safe’. Safety is a dream, not a possibility, and the novel suggests it is a dangerous dream. Anyway, safety isn’t what little girls want. Theo Wyre, one of Jackson’s clients, preserves his dead daughter’s bedroom like a shrine. Laura was a sweet girl, devoted to Theo, but not quite the chaste angel he chooses to remember. Naturally enough, she had a life that Theo was unaware of, including sex with her boyfriend at 14 and unwelcome advances from a teacher. Jackson thinks he’s going to find the causes of Laura’s murder in the muddle of her sex life; but Laura was managing it capably. She couldn’t help – no one could have helped – the bad luck that led her to cross paths with a voyeur-fantasist. In one of the restorations with which the novel ends, Lily-Rose, a lost girl from another story, moves into Laura’s bedroom, a substitute daughter for Theo. He doesn’t need to be afraid for Lily-Rose, because ‘so many bad things had happened to her she was damage-proofed.’
It is not surprising that Jackson, hyper-sensitive to the fraught convergence of childhood and sexuality, becomes over-involved with the three case histories around which the novel is structured. All three are to do with lost daughters; each is in a magical sense ‘found’ in the end. Perhaps the strongest story is of the Land family, whose youngest child, Olivia, disappeared one summer’s morning from a tent in the garden, leaving no clue. Jackson is consulted thirty years later by two of Olivia’s sisters; Blue Mouse, a stuffed toy in whom Olivia had always confided, has turned up, stuffed in their dying father’s desk drawer. The sisters, Amelia and Julia, are characteristic comic creations. Eating cake after their father’s funeral, they ask Jackson, if he was a dog, what kind of dog he thinks he’d be, and hoot with incredulous laughter when he suggests a labrador. A Tupperware party is the only party of any kind that Amelia has been to in five years; she bought a very useful cereal dispenser. She and Julia tease one another and sulk as if they had stopped growing up when Olivia disappeared. At the end of the novel, an explanation for the disappearance is supplied, and fits well enough. But child sex abuse is overused as a plot mechanism these days, and it was a mistake to bring in Jackson’s own back-story: it overfreights his motivation, and isn’t brought off with the tactful light treatment with which the other tragedies are handled.