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by Kate Atkinson
Black Swan, February 2011
494 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0552772461

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Retired detective superintendent Tracy Waterhouse makes an impulse buy and in so doing turns her own life upside down. Her spontaneous purchase is witnessed by an elderly actress struggling against the onset of dementia. At the same time, Jackson Brodie the private detective who has featured in previous books is attempting, without much success, to trace the origins of client, a young woman born in Leeds and now living in New Zealand.

This is a complex, many-layered book that, as is often the case with Kate Atkinson, is quite hard to get into but impossible to put down by the end. Relief from the struggle to make sense of it all first appears, to those looking for coherence, at the point when Jackson Brodie makes his first entrance. At last the writing seems to flow, although even Jackson doesn't have it all his own way. The story bounces to and fro through past and present, featuring characters of all ages: the elderly, the young, and everything in between. It becomes a delight to see how the complexity of the story does indeed make sense. It is a testament to the quality of the writing that the reader keeps working at it until the end. Although even then there is the temptation to just go back and check exactly what did happen on New Year's Eve.

How does Kate Atkinson get the reader to empathise with each of the characters given that we get such fleeting glimpses of them? Her observation is so precise the little girl opening and closing her fingers to make star signs; the elderly lady with dementia mistakenly cooking at night; Tracy's protective feelings for her new charge; Jackson's for his dog, and so on.

Whilst this is certainly not a book for the lazy, much help is given to draw the reader along. Each era has its own atmosphere, the modern day more pleasant and light-hearted than the past, so the tendency is to hurry through some parts, then to relax into others. In particular, Jackson's laid-back approach is infectious and provides a sometimes much-needed break from the harshness of some of the other scenarios, and from the frequent compulsion to try to link up all the bits.

Above all Kate Atkinson records clearly what it means to be human, what complex creatures we are. She gets beneath the stereotypes and allows the reader to see the truth of the characters, their thoughts, that whole hidden dimension that makes them so believable.

Sylvia Maughan is a retired university lecturer based in Bristol.

Reviewed by Sylvia Maughan, April 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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