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Third time‛s the charm, they say, but there isn‛t a great deal of easy charm to be found in Kate Atkinson‛s spectacular and poignantly-titled new novel, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? in which Jackson Brodie makes his third appearance. What there is instead is a clear-eyed and uncompromising investigation of the human condition, told with jaunty bravery and sparkling wit. This is both a very funny novel and a deeply sad one.
When Dr Joanna Hunter ("call me Jo") was six years old, she saw a strange man stab her mother, sister, and baby brother to death in a Devon wheatfield. She survived because she ran and hid, following her mother‛s frantic directions. Now, thirty years later, the same age as her mother when she died, she is a successful GP, the mother of a baby boy, and married to a rather dubious sort who is in the "leisure industry." The man who killed her family has just been released from prison, having served his time.
Her mother‛s help is Reggie, a sixteen-year-old orphan who looks about twelve, who has a drug-dealing brother, and admirable intelligence and moral sense. Before her mother died, she was at a posh school on scholarship; now she is studying independently for her exams with the help of a former teacher, terminally ill with a brain tumour.
Ms Macdonald, the teacher, lives right next to the main north-south railway line and one evening, when she is away at a prayer meeting (the tumour has encouraged her to join a tiny apocalyptic sect) and Reggie is studying away, there is a terrible crash. Aboard the train is Jackson Brodie, the central figure in Atkinson‛s two previous crime novels. He‛d got on believing the train was headed toward London, but (fatefully? randomly?), he‛s now lying in a ditch, bleeding to death, instead of heading to King‛s Cross and a reunion with his new wife, away at a conference somewhere or other.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, DCI Louise Monroe is worried because the man who killed his wife‛s mother and sister at his daughter‛s birthday party as well as the neighbour who happened to be present, is still at large.
Reggie‛s worried too. Jo‛s husband Neil has called and told her not to come to work - Jo‛s gone off to tend to an ailing aunt. But if that‛s the case, why has she left behind her mobile, her driving glasses, and the baby‛s blanky from which he cannot normally be parted? And why won‛t the authorities start looking for her?
All of these threads will intersect on one level or another by the book‛s close, forming a web of destiny or chance in which the only moral imperative seems to be that you must help if you can and when you are asked. Die-hard readers of crime fiction will perhaps jib at the prominent role played by coincidence in the plot but, as Jackson says, "Coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen." After all, real life is a series of coincidences; only fiction contains plot and narrative arc.
I am worried lest I have left the impression that this is a solemn, ponderous work. It is immensely witty, brilliantly written, and frequently very funny. It struck me that if Ruth Rendell (of the later, London, novels) and Fay Weldon got together over a bottle of wine, the result might sound something like this. Anyone who enjoys the joyous play of literary reference of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels will be happily at home here also.
The character of Reggie is also a bright spot relieving a rather acerbic view of human frailties. Reggie gets on with it, whatever it may happen to be. Left an orphan when her mother dies in a swimming pool in Spain on her first holiday in twenty years, Reggie leaves school, puts her head down, maintains her studies, gets a job, and deals with the consequences of her waster of a brother‛s drug deals gone bad. That should be enough for any sixteen-year-old, but Reggie has enough left over to care deeply about others, even perfect strangers, and to act effectively to help them. She has no illusions but she does have a steady moral sense, and that‛s enough.
But it is a deeply serious work as well. Atkinson knows just how hard it is to keep going in a world where maniacs strike without warning, trains derail, and men turn on their wives in paroxysms of violence. If you find yourself wistfully asking the question that the title poses, this book, while it won‛t provide an answer, can help you carry on without one.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2008
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