Reviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn
Here's a question a newspaper book editor fields at parties and PTA meetings: What's the best book you've read recently? Which is another way of saying: Who's an author who has knocked one out of the park?
I think long and hard about the answer -- it needs to be a one-size-fits-all good read; not too long, not too arduous, but a showcase for a dazzling talent. For a couple of years, the answer was easy: Kate Atkinson's breakout mystery, 2004's Case Histories.
Atkinson is an Edinburgh-based novelist who spent years composing brainy literary novels, one of which, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the 1995 Whitbread book of the year award (a sort of populist version of the Booker Prize, now known as the Costa award) in Britain.
Then, with Case Histories, Atkinson jumped the rails.
Case Histories is a detective novel, an intricately woven account of three unsolved crimes and a detective, Jackson Brodie, who ultimately unlocks their secrets. The interconnecting plots meander all over the place, but Atkinson's empathy for her characters, tart humor and talent for pulling stunning plot twists out of her pocket turn a conventional mystery into a transcendent story of loss and redemption. Case Histories was followed by One Good Turn, Jackson Brodie's run at solving a mystery while on holiday at an Edinburgh arts festival. Now comes the third book in the Brodie trilogy, When Will There Be Good News? -- not a book about the economy, or the presidential election, or even (much) about Jackson Brodie, but about mothers and daughters, teenagers and dogs, love and death, especially death -- its ability to batter, shatter and ultimately strengthen people struggling in its wake.
The story opens with a family idyll: mother, two daughters, a baby and a dog, bantering and tramping through the English countryside on a summer's day. "They made their way along the lane in single file, 'Indian file,' their mother said. The plastic shopping bags hung from the handles of the buggy and if their mother let go it tipped backwards on to the ground.
" 'We must look like refugees,' she said. 'Yet we are not downhearted,' she added cheerfully."
This pastoral scene ends with an act of such shattering violence, I had to put the book down and let out a deep breath.
" 'Run, Joanna, run,' her mother commanded. So she did."
Fast forward to 30 years later. Dr. Jo Hunter has hired a 16-year-old baby-sitter (a "mother's help" in Britspeak) named Reggie Chase to help with her baby. Reggie, a recent orphan, is deeply attached to Dr. Hunter, the baby and Dr. Hunter's dog, Sadie (Dr. Hunter's husband, not so much).
It's clear straight off the mark that Dr. Hunter is connected with what happened 30 years ago. When she and her baby disappear, people the length and breadth of England, including Reggie and the dog, half the country's cops and Jackson Brodie -- after he recovers from a near-death experience on a train -- are on the case.
The plot winds and rewinds, then perversely unspools in the opposite direction. It's the characters that make this book: Reggie Chase (Chase, get it?) is smart, appealing, forthright and funny, to say nothing of the dog, to insert one of those sly literary references Atkinson is prone to spangling her prose with. Mrs. MacDonald, one of Reggie's protectors, is a classics teacher waiting for the rapture to beam her up. Louise Fletcher, a cop in the Havers tradition (as in Inspector Lynley's sidekick) who passed up on Jackson Brodie's affections in a previous book, is about to get married to a very un-Brodieish physician and feeling more than a bit nauseated about it.
And down we go, into a long, dark tunnel ride through love, death and surviving the worst human beings can dish out, as Atkinson tosses out references to Dickens, Monty Python and Wallace and Gromit along the way. Early on, she gives the reader a peek at the cosmology that makes the wheels of this book turn:
"Dr. Hunter turned to Reggie and said, 'You know there are no rules,' and Reggie said, 'Really?' because she could think of a lot of rules, like cutting grapes in half and wearing a cap when you went swimming, not to mention separating all the rubbish for the recycling bins ... 'No, not those kinds of things. I mean the way we live our lives. There isn't a template, a pattern that we're supposed to follow. There's no one watching us to see if we're doing it properly, there is no properly, we just make it up as we go along ... What you have to remember, Reggie, is that the only important thing is love. Do you understand?' "
Atkinson is a rule-breaker who never forgets what counts. What's the best book I've read recently? It's still Case Histories, but One Good Turn and Good News are worthy candidates for second or third place. What, you haven't read them yet? Lucky you.
Mary Ann Gwinn is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.
Books mentioned in this post