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Little Grey CellsJ. Robert Lennon
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Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

Little Grey Cells

J. Robert Lennon

1862 words
Big Sky 
by Kate Atkinson.
Black Swan, 356 pp., £8.99, January, 978 0 552 77666 0
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KateAtkinsons 12th book, her fifth starring the detective Jackson Brodie, opens with our hero making some kind of escape with a young bride. She tosses her veil and bouquet onto the back seat of Brodie’s car, and they ride off into the sunset. Brodie glances at his companion: ‘He noticed she was cupping the bowl of her belly, where she was incubating an as yet invisible baby.’ No fan of the erstwhile police officer, now private investigator, will be surprised by these apparent revelations, having followed him through two ill-fated, child-producing relationships and one barren and disastrous marriage. Nor will they – or anyone familiar with Atkinson’s work in general – be surprised when, a few paragraphs later, an elderly couple congratulates the couple on their marriage and he replies: ‘It’s not what it looks like.’ ‘one week earlier’, the following page reads, and Atkinson spends the rest of the book bringing us up to speed.

Many writers practise literary trickery, or investigate the truism that things aren’t always what they seem, but a big part of Atkinson’s appeal comes from her unbridled delight in sleight of hand. Plot reversals, shifts in point of view, leaps in space and time; echoing and doubling, twists and fakeouts, MacGuffins and red herrings: all are deployed with gleeful energy. She is also fond of flashy openings: her best-known non-Brodie novel, Life after Life, begins with its protagonist apparently about to murder Hitler in a café.* But that book soon reveals its primary aim: observing the interplay of character and circumstance through the plotting of many possible versions of the same woman’s life in early 20th-century Britain. Atkinson’s interest in scrambling chronology, and shuffling points of view, seems also to derive from her obsessive attention to the relationship between personality, circumstance and memory; her characters are always recalling scraps of the past at inopportune moments, or failing to remember important details that could free them from danger or misery.

It’s tempting to think of Atkinson as a writer of maximalist, conventionally satisfying, carefully plotted fiction that is innovative only in stretching the usual elements of psychological realism to their technical limits. But one of the most exciting things about her books is the way they renege on their own promises. Atkinson’s illusions are performed out in the open: you think you’ve mastered their complexities, but then the chaos of human relations takes over, and people defy their own natures, or the rules of their own stories. As Hilary Mantel put it in the LRB some years ago, reviewing Behind the Scenes at the Museum, ‘just when you think you have begun to understand how her book works, she will undeceive you.’

In Jackson Brodie’s world, literary characters like Jackson Brodie – divorced ex-coppers of a philosophical bent – exist, and Brodie knows it. He’s read plenty of crime fiction and understands how an investigation is supposed to unfold. ‘Time to regroup the little grey cells,’ Atkinson has him tell himself after a setback. ‘He tipped an invisible hat in Poirot’s direction. Jackson preferred the Belgian to Miss Marple. He was straightforward, where Miss Marple was endlessly devious.’ Unfortunately for him, his creator is more Marple than Poirot, and the crimes he is given to solve are baffling and convoluted. Most of them involve paedophilia and human trafficking. In the book’s second opening – since Atkinson’s books have many points of view, they also have many openings – we’re introduced to two young Polish sisters, Katja and Nadja. They want to travel to the UK to work in the hotel industry, with the help of what they believe is an employment agency called Anderson Price Associates. ‘They weren’t stupid,’ we’re assured, ‘they knew about trafficking, about people who tricked girls into thinking they were going to good jobs, proper jobs, who then ended up drugged, trapped in some filthy hole of a room having sex with one man after another.’ APA is different – they’ve got a legit website, great reviews. The girls Skype with Mark Price, a handsome man in a busy London office, and he arranges their transport. Except there is, we soon learn, no Mark Price, the website and testimonials are fake, the busy office is just a clever camera angle and a sound recording, and the girls are on their way to sex slavery.

Brodie, meanwhile, is following unfaithful spouses around East Yorkshire, spending time with his sullen teenage son, Nathan, and wondering whether he ought to try to get back together with the boy’s mother, Julia, an actress in a TV crime series filming nearby. In these early pages, Atkinson sows the seeds of the drama: near a seafront amusement park, Brodie buys Nathan an ice cream, and remembers that the creamery’s founder, Bassani, along with the amusement park’s, Carmody, were involved in a paedophile ring twenty years earlier, long since broken up and its members prosecuted. He idly recalls a lawyer, Stephen Mellors, for whom he occasionally does investigative work, and happens on a rundown theatre, where a variety show starring a washed-up comedian called Barclay Jack is playing. A cottage, noticed in passing, is called Thisldo (‘That’s crap,’ Nathan says). Before long, Mellors and Jack will become relevant to the story, and a dead body will be found in Thisldo’s back garden.

Atkinson spends a hundred pages getting the players into position: the hapless cuckold Vince Ives, come to Mellors for a divorce; and some golfing buddies, the haulage entrepreneur Tommy Holroyd and a needling hotelier called Andy Bragg. Crystal, Tommy’s cosmetically enhanced, street-smart wife, has a past she’d prefer to keep secret; her stepson, Harry, is a thoughtful boy fond of puns involving cheese. Two young female police detectives entertainingly called Ronnie and Reggie are interviewing in the area, trying to tie up a few loose ends in the old Bassani-Carmody case. The novel’s point of view, though rendered in the third person, alights in each character’s head by turn, usually one character per chapter, in short chapters that familiarise us with their pasts, their motivations, their secrets and ambitions. Important details about the characters appear in other people’s chapters, and vignettes are shown from different points of view.

Atkinson’s tricks with flashbacks and changes of perspective can make her stories hard to follow, and not always in a way that rewards the extra concentration. Reading earlier Brodie novels, I often had to flip back a few pages to remind myself whose head I was supposed to be in, or whether the events described took place before, after or during the scene I’d just finished. But in this book, as the detail gradually accumulated, I was never confused or impatient. Atkinson is good at presenting ordinariness as nothing more than the state that obtains before disaster occurs; every quotidian observation in Big Sky generates suspense. The theatre, for example, is a firetrap in which everyone casually smokes. Julia’s TV career is in danger – her character may be killed off, a crime within a fiction within a crime fiction. Someone nearly drowns, and then someone else nearly drowns. Brodie sees a young hitchhiker with a unicorn backpack, and later finds a similar backpack washed up on the beach. ‘Jackson didn’t believe in coincidences,’ Atkinson tells us – but she does, and some of the ones she shows us are meaningless. Which ones, though?

Reggie and Ronnie are the agents who set the various plotlines in motion; their inquiries into what they assume is a cold case elicit odd reactions, and suddenly they find themselves diverted to urgent new matters. For instance, it is Ives’s estranged wife who’s found lying in the yard of Thisldo in her nightdress, the back of her head bashed in with a golf club. Somebody drowns for real. And the increasingly elusive Holroyd, Mellors and Bragg seem to be involved in a new human trafficking operation.

Of course, we already knew that: Big Sky isn’t technically a mystery. Atkinson occasionally teases us with an enigmatic bit of dialogue or a shadowy figure in the distance, but she’s as likely to discharge the resulting tension as to exploit it. At one point, Harry and his toddler stepsister escape danger by hitching a ride, and we realise, in a chapter-ending cliffhanger, that they’ve got into the mysterious silver BMW that has been stalking their mother, Crystal. Eight pages later, though, the two are safe in bed, delivered home by the stalker, whose identity is still in question. It’s a power move. Elsewhere, Brodie goes for a run with his headphones on, his favourite music playing. Crime fiction demands that it’s moody jazz or gritty rock and roll. Sorry, no, he likes Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Mary Chapin Carpenter – tough, sexy country songwriters who sing about heartbreak.

Atkinson chooses the genre elements that suit her, bends them to her will, and ignores the rest. Everything Brodie finds out, or involves himself in, is the result of serendipity and casual nosiness rather than actual detective work. He is given only two professional tasks in this novel: to pursue a cheating husband and figure out who’s following Crystal. The first is irrelevant, and he fails at the second. A running joke has characters wondering why they keep bumping into him, and he’s mystified late in the book when Reggie addresses him familiarly. ‘How do you know my name?’ he asks.

The guiding consciousness of Big Sky is a free-ranging, charmingly distractable, darkly comic narrative voice, rendered in extremely close third person. Brodie’s real job isn’t detection: it’s to be the unwitting source of that voice. Atkinson’s frequent sardonic asides and scraps of remembered dialogue always sound like Brodie – it’s almost as though everyone’s inner life is being rendered as he might imagine it to be, if he had any idea what was going on.

The fact that at any given moment hardly anyone actually knows what’s going on is part of the pleasure of this rangy, loping thriller; characters have no clue why their husband stayed out all night, or why they were just kidnapped, or why they’re being pursued by goons in suits. Even the bad actors aren’t entirely sure why they’re behaving as they are: the human traffickers all seem to think they just stumbled into the business, and the only people who feel guilty are the victims.

When the novel’s dénouement arrives, in the form of a gun, no one is more surprised than the person holding it. This is Atkinson’s achievement, and perhaps her thesis: no one really knows what they’re capable of, and understanding where you’ve been doesn’t mean you know where you’re headed. This is as true for the bad guys as the good – and for the bride (remember her?), whose identity is eventually revealed. It’s true for the reader too: Atkinson tells you everything and still takes you by surprise.

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