Note added July 27, 2011. This was my original post about Started early, took my dog. Near the end I mention that birthmark. This resulted in various theories being discussed in the Comments at the end of the post. And – July 12 2011 – I’d just re-read Started Early and posted what I think are some conclusions along with a few other thoughts
I was surprised to find, in the book I’m currently reading (‘Hitler’s private library’, of which more another day), ‘Mein Kampf’ described as “Dickensian”, because that is precisely the adjective that invariably springs to mind (or mine at least) when considering the novels of Kate Atkinson. Along with the varied cast of quirky individuals all with their own tales and the tangled web of the plots, we get the moral outrage more usually associated with Charles Dickens and the deep cynicism about the way the world (especially the modern world) works, but also, a broad compassion for the good people who must live in it. And this one’s plot revolves around adoptions and orphanages for good Dickensian measure. The prose is less convoluted but loses nothing for that.
‘Started early, took my dog‘ (Doubleday, 2010) starts off with, in separate incidents, the bad treatment in a public place – a shopping mall – of a child and a dog; both are rescued in spontaneous acts of practical charity. A woman buys the child, which is a big part of the book, while the dog is rescued by Jackson Brodie, the sort-of private eye making his fourth appearance in this sequence of novels. There are unpleasant crimes at the heart of ‘Started early‘ but the book covers so much more. Brodie is dossing around the ruined abbeys of Yorkshire while vaguely pursuing an enquiry which involves taking in events in swinging ’60s London and mid-70s Leeds at the time of the Ripper.
Jackson Brodie is one of the great literary creations of the era and you get an entertaining retelling of his back story that just makes me want to visit the previous books all over again, but new readers can start in on the sequence here with safety. Currently unattached, what emerges is a penchant for women whose names begin with J; a first wife, Josie, a second, Julia, who functions as a caustically affectionate significant other in his head, and a Sat-nav called Jane. This J connection isn’t spelt out but it’s the sort of fun Kate Atkinson has. The delicious tangents she characteristically spins off on are still in full working order – here’s a small but perfectly formed example; Jackson has been catching up on literature:
“What he discovered was the great novels of the world were about three things – death, money and sex. Occasionally a whale.”
I guess you either love it or look the other way. A spotty youth, “looked like he had been swimming in a very small gene pool.” A policeman’s wife, “was always rigged out ready for an impromptu invitation to lunch with the queen.” Fish and chips are “Northern soul food.” You can quote one-liners endlessly. Here’s another one, much in tenor with the overall mood of the book:
“More and more these days he had noticed he felt like a visitor from another planet. or the past. Sometimes Jackson thought that the past wasn’t just another country, it was a lost continent somewhere at the bottom of an unknown ocean.”
Hey, but we keep on keeping on. At a certain stage near the end he puts a Mary Gauthier CD into his car stereo. It’s not a song I knew and nothing is quoted save the title, ‘Mercy now’ but I felt compelled to seek it out:
“We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us
Could use some mercy now”
There’s a beautiful,sad and terrible twist of an ending to one of the minor character’s tales – it would be a spoiler to say any more. It’s a tremendous, lovely book. I should have savoured it more, read it at such a pace that I’m not sure if everything is resolved. Like who the child rescued in the shopping mall actually is. I’ve told others I know will read it to keep an eye open for a birthmark the shape of Africa. And it really is time I read some Emily Dickinson, who gets the last word.
(As mentioned at the top of this post, there is more discussion of Courtney and her birthmark in the Comments at the end of this post. And – July 12 2011 – after re-reading Started Early I have posted what I think are some conclusions along with a few other thoughts).
A final thought: Kate is undoubtedly ‘one of us’. Who are we? Among many things we are the people who wonder why they never switch the lights on in TV crime thrillers:
“Tracy put the light on. No one ever switched the light on […] in TV crime thrillers. For the atmosphere, Tracy supposed. She could live without atmosphere.”
And at a complete tangent, atmosphere enough when I went to newly promoted to the Football League Stevenage‘s new ground in the company of a couple of avowed groundhoppers on Saturday. I was the one of the 3,431 crowd watching a one-all draw ‘twixt Stevenage and Crewe Alexandra, which the Alex should have won. The home fans already give a well-developed and spirited musical performance from the terraces – a good atmosphere. Bizarrely, because of a late-diagnosed clash of kits, Crewe had to play in Stevenage’s all yellow away kit; Alex fans not long in working up a chant of “Yell-Ows”. But the outstanding memory will be of 16 year old Nick Powell‘s coming on as sub 2/3rds of the way through. Another from the famed Dario Gradi academy, suddenly a metaphorical sun came out from the behind the clouds of endeavour on the pitch – grey in the first half, brightening somewhat in the second – speed, trickery, energy and wit way above anything else seen on the pitch all match. They couldn’t live with him (even his own team mates at times not seeing what he saw) and he was fouled relentlessly, just got up and carried on. Phew! I can safely say that a couple of you will have read that name here first!