Case Histories

Kate Atkinson
Case Histories
(Black Swan, 2005)

This is a writer of immediacy, insousiance, flip, a flare of contemporary sarcasm. When I first read it, finished it, the following weeks had me counting the number of separate vivid personalities I could recall, perhaps 22. I actually counted them, and believe it or not, the writing was so vivid I remembered each name and position in relation to the other characters. One character fleshed out included an imaginary lover!

Magical. The most female of the books:

‘One of the most brilliantly playful, witty and original writers we have … Atkinson’s pin-sharp observation,, her massive and consistent talent for comedy, her sharp eye for linguistic nonsense, might delude you into thinking this is a book you can relax into, just waiting for the jokes to flow (because, often enough, they do) … even though the ending ties up all three stories with an impossibly optimistic flourish, that’s not what you remember when you close the book. Instead it’s a curious feeling you hardly ever experience on finishing a crime novel: as though you’ve laughed out loud in church.’ The Scotsman

Here’s a picture of a young mother in crisis:

Michelle had been setting her alarm five minutes earlier every day. This morning it had gone off at twenty past five. Tomorrow it would be quarter past. She could see that she would have to call a halt eventually or she would be getting up before she went to bed. But not yet. She was only one step ahead of the baby who woke up with the birds and the dawn, and the birds and the dawn were coming earlier every day at this time of year.

She needed more time, there simply wasn’t enough of it. This was the only way she could think of making it. Not making it exactly, if you could make it from scratch — brand new time — that would be fantastic. Michelle tried to think of ways in which you might manufacture something so abstract, but all she could think of were examples of her own small-scale domestic economy — knitting and sewing and baking. Imagine if you could knit time, Christ, her needles would be clacking day and night. And what an advantage she would have over her friends, none of whom knew how to knit (or bake or sew), but then none of them had saddled themselves at the age of eighteen with a husband and a baby and a bloody cottage in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by nothing but horizon, so that it felt as if the sky was a huge stone that was pressing you into the ground. No, not saddled, she loved them. She really did.

And anyway, where would she ever find the time to make time? There was no time. That was the whole point. What if she stopped going to bed altogether. She could shut herself away like someone in a fairy story, in a room at the top of a tower, and spin time like gold. She could stay awake until there was so much time, lying in golden hanks at her feet, that it would last her the rest of her life and she would never run out again. The idea of living in a tower, cut off from everyone and everything, sounded like heaven to Michelle.

The baby was a parcel delivered to the wrong address, with no way of sending it back or getting it redelivered. (‘Call her by her name,’ Keith said to her all the time, ‘call her Tanya, not “it”.’) Michelle had only just left her own (unsatisfactory) childhood behind so how was she supposed to be in charge of someone else’s? She knew the term was ‘bonding’, it was in a baby book she had (How to Have a Happy Baby, hah!). She hadn’t bonded with the baby, instead she was shackled by it.

All the people who had told her that having a termination and finishing her A levels was the sensible thing for her to do had been right after all. And if she could put the clock back — which would be another way of getting some time — then that’s exactly what she would do. She would be a student somewhere now if she hadn’t had the baby, she’d be drinking like a fish and taking drugs and handing in mediocre essays on the 1832 Reform Act or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall instead of sprinkling coriander seeds on a tray of compost while listening to the baby cry wherever it was she had left it when she couldn’t stand the noise anymore… [pp. 55-57]

Ostensibly a detective story tracing three completely separate incidents of long ago: domestic murder; vanishing child; and savage inexplicable multiple murder.

The weaving of the stories creates a society of the modern town of Cambridge.

Perhaps one of the best ‘mysteries’ ever.

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