No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, July 22, 2007

#35: One Good Turn -- Kate Atkinson

A novel like a set of Russian dolls (matroyshka, as we're reminded throughout): each character's story intersects with many others.

It begins with what seems to be an everyday case of road-rage outside an Edinburgh Festival venue: a Honda hits a Peugeot, and the Honda driver goes for the Peugeot driver with a baseball bat -- only to be deflected by the laptop of a passing crime writer. The police are called, the 'victim' carted off to hospital, and a chain of events is set in motion that includes adultery, murder, corruption, prostitution and Matalan underwear.

Yes, really.
The dead woman's clothing .. displayed Matalan labels. This was why you should wear matching underwear, Louise reminded herself, not for the off chance of a sexual encounter but for eventualities like this. The dead-on-a-fishmonger's-slab scenario where the whole world could see that you bought your oddly matched underwear in cheap shops.

One Good Turn is subtitled 'A Jolly Murder Mystery', and -- inasfar as such a thing's possible -- that's what it is. Those who die are either richly deserving of their fate, or oblivious to it, or victims of mistaken identity.

The 'jolly' tag is also applied by Martin Canning's literary agent to his wholesome series of post-war crime novels starring Nina Riley. Martin has ambitions, though:
[He] imagined writing a story, a Borges-like construction where each story contained the kernel of the next and so on. Not Nina Riley obviously -- linear narratives were as much as she could cope with -- but rather something with intellectual cachet (something good).
Is Martin voicing Atkinson's own ambitions here? The novel is certainly replete with unexpected connections (see fig. 1, though don't peer too closely or you'll find spoilers). It makes Edinburgh seem like a small town where everyone knows everyone else -- though it's essential to the plot that there are enough other people on-stage, as it were, to provide red herrings, alibis and concealment. And there are a few unresolved sub-plots.

Most interesting was the contrast between those who've left behind their personal tragedies -- three of the four protagonists have lost a sibling -- and those whose dark secrets lurk behind every action they take. The contrast, in fact, between the four central characters: crime writer Martin, ex-detective Jackson, newly-promoted DI Louise Munroe, and middle-aged middle-class Gloria. Their fates are entwined, and deliciously dramatic, and all pivot on that incident of road-rage and its repercussions.

Some lovely writing (Gloria imagines the mysterious Russian Tatiana to taste "of raw reindeer meat and smoky black tea and the iron tang of blood. Someone else's.") and a plot that twists and turns (echoing the title) right up to the last line. Impressive and engaging.

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