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by Kate Atkinson
Bond Street Books, November 2010
352 pages
$24.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385671342

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The Merrion Centre shopping mall in Leeds is the staging area for this fourth episode in the adventures of Jackson Brodie, "semi-retired" private investigator. It is here that the three major characters are launched into actions that will transform their lives. First, Jackson himself, who rescues a dog from its abusive owner. Then Tracy Waterhouse, retired policewoman, currently employed on the security force in the centre, who also spontaneously engages in her own, far more significant, rescue operation. And finally, Tilly, an actress currently appearing in a TV serial but teetering on the edge of dementia, who is saved from the embarrassment of being charged with shoplifting for inadvertently wandering off with a Leeds A-Z.

Pursuing the narrative arc in STARTED EARLY is a little like trying to reconstruct the naked lady in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. It's there all right, but you have to put in a bit of effort to get her to come into focus. Atkinson unfolds a story that has roots in a dreadful event that occurred thirty-five years ago in Leeds against the background of the unfolding drama of the Yorkshire Ripper case. Tracy was a young police constable who witnessed the aftermath of that event. Brodie is trying to find out the whereabouts of her birth parents for a client in New Zealand who was evidently born in Leeds. And Tilly's increasing dementia means that the boundaries between past and present in her mind are increasingly infirm.

It should go without saying that Kate Atkinson is a superb technician. Indeed, she tends to drive the staider critics mad because she manages a complex approach to narration often thought to beyond the scope of the mere detective novel, and she does it without apparently breathing hard or suggesting that all of this is too rich for what used to be called the "common reader."

Her characters, generally speaking, are "common" too, ordinary folks whose lives become extraordinary when they act to do good when called upon. The rescues that take place in that most placeless of contemporary places, the shopping centre, are both accompanied by a muttered chorus from passers-by of "someone ought to do something," "it oughtn't to be allowed," and "where are the authorities." But Jackson and Tracy don't merely mutter. They each act decisively and their lives will be forever transformed as a result.

Jackson has become a lover of poetry, especially of Emily Dickinson, and what he sees, what happens to him, constantly prompts a quotation from her collected works. The title itself comes from #520 in that volume and Kate Atkinson never quotes the poem in full. I do recommend readers look it up, however; it says a great deal about Jackson and this novel. While you're at it, another Dickinson - "My life had stood - a loaded Gun" - could also have served as a title here. For it is precisely that sense of potential power within the most ordinary of persons, just waiting for the appropriate trigger to make itself felt that makes Atkinson's characters so compelling.

In a recent interview, Atkinson has suggested that STARTED EARLY may in fact be Jackson Brodie's swan song. But if this is indeed the last we see of him (and I deeply hope it is not), I impatiently look forward to following wherever Atkinson cares to go.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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