It’s been a few years since I’ve read Atkinson, I think. At least since I started this blog in January 2008. I had forgotten how funny she is. Right off on page 4, she’s describing the young Tracy Waterhouse:
Sixteen never been kissed by a boy , never drunk wine, not even Blue Nun.
There’s something funny about Blue Nun and St. Pauli Girl beer, really. To me at least. Maybe it’s my personal history with the Nun. Anyway, Atkinson’s latest starts in 1975, and moves back and forth between that time and the present. In 1975 Tracy Waterhouse was starting out as a young uniformed policewoman in Leeds. Just around the time the Yorkshire Ripper serial killings were about to make headlines. The future course of Tracy’s life has its roots back in this year.
The second major character (there are three) is Jackson Brodie. Now an ex-cop, Brodie has a small and not very successful private detective agency. An agency of one. Whereas Tracy ends up aiming to reclaim her past, the life she might have lived, Jackson, is on a dual quest. To find the ex who had stolen all his savings, disappeared, and working to track down the parents of an adoptive child, now grown and living in New Zealand. The third character, and the one who inadvertently puts Jackson on a collision course with Tracy, is Tillie, now an aging actress, drifting into dementia.
There are many other characters necessary to propel the plot forward: a social worker heavily involved in a mysterious cover-up, Tracy’s boss, now about to retire himself (Tracy had only done so recently). Jackson’s ex-wife Julia, who I suspect is Atkinson’s alter-ego). Julia is smart as a whip and she knows how to use her intelligence. There are several others as well.
Seems to me that both Tracy and Jackson are becoming more and more self-aware as they have begun the later years. Both are self-deprecating to themselves, but Tracy is defensively armored, a result of her working in the good ole boys world all her working life. In fact, Atkinson writes with a keen eye on her characters’ presence – physical and mental, in the world.
But not only people, but dogs as well. At one point, Jackson Brodie rescues a tiny dog (Yorkie, I think), and Atkinson describes the dog like this (before Jackson rescued the dog). Out for a walk in a park on a nice day:
He came across an unexpected picture of happiness. A dog, a small scruffy one, was racing around the park as if it had just been released from prison. It disturbed a flock of pigeons intent on an abandoned sandwich and the birds rose up in a flutter of annoyance when it yapped excitedly at them. It started off again. running at full tilt and skidding to a halt, a second too late, next to a woman lying on a rug. She yelled and threw a flip-flop at it. The dog caught the flip-flop midair, shook it as if it were a rat, and then dropped it and ran off toward a small girl who screamed as it jumped up, trying to lick the ice cream in her hand. When the child’s mother threatened it with blue murder the dog ran off and barked for a long time at something imaginary before finding a broken branch that it dragged around in circles until its attention was caught by the scent of something more interesting. It truffled around until it found the source, the dried turd of another dog. The dog sniffed it with the delight of a connoisseur before growing bored and trotting off toward a tree, where it lifted its leg.
Perfect, huh? It makes me laugh with recognition every time.
The novel’s central theme is referred to often, as if a mantra. It has its place as the frontpiece of Atkinson’s novel, a traditional rhyme:
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
I think only one time was it repeated in its entirety in the novel itself, but there are plenty of times that it comes out just as “for want of a nail”. This is ‘one thing leads to another’, inevitably. A particularly deterministic view of the world
I won’t reveal any of the plot, except to say that it involves murder, and official coverup, kidnapping for a cause and corruption at the highest levels. It’s moderately difficult, but not too much so, to keep the players straight. And you need to keep the players straight to follow closely how the history developed. One of the players is a mirror image of Jackson Brodie. He’s named Brodie Jackson, also a private detective investigating the same missing person(s) but not really. I’ve yet to decide how I feel about this device, I waver from gimmicky to rather elegant. It was something to ponder, anyway.
An enjoyable read, so I recalled correctly.