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

Monday, June 20, 2011

2011/24: Case Histories -- Kate Atkinson

Even the police had brought a clairvoyant in, but they hadn't briefed him properly and he had thought they were looking for a body when, of course, they already had one. The clairvoyant said the girl's body was 'in a garden, within walking distance of a river', which pretty much narrowed it down to half of Cambridge ... How many girls were out there, unturned by the plough, unseen by the passerby? If only you could lock girls away, in towers, in dungeons, in convents, in their bedrooms, anywhere that would keep them safe. (p. 141)

Case Histories starts by setting out the details of three murders: Olivia, a little girl who goes missing from a tent in the family garden, Cambridge 1970; Laura, a young woman murdered at random whilst working in her father's office, Cambridge 1994; and Michelle, a woman in a remote farmhouse suffering post-natal depression, who finds herself watching her baby daughter screaming as her husband lies dead. Typically for a Kate Atkinson novel, these three crimes are linked by a complex cobweb of circumstance, coincidence and hidden connections. The man who brings them all together? Private Investigator Jackson Brodie, divorced, ex-military, ex-police.

Atkinson brings Cambridge to life, and she's refreshingly rude about tourists, foreign-language students and local eccentricities. ('Madness was endemic in Cambridge', p. 110) There's a punt expedition to the Orchard Tea Rooms, during which Julia expounds at length about Rupert Brooke and nude bathing. There are nudists on the riverbank (reading Principia Mathematica) and adulterers in the bland estates of Cherry Hinton.

The novel is full of lost girls -- not all of them dead, but all of them uprooted, cut off from their pasts. Julia and Amelia, sisters of lost Olivia, are both stuck, psychologically, at the ages they were when Olivia vanished from the garden. (Their elder sister Sylvia ran away to a convent.) Michelle's daughter keeps running away, and stops coming back. Theo, Laura's father, defines his whole life by the fact that his daughter -- one of his daughters -- was murdered. When he succumbs to a life-threatening asthma attack on Christ's Pieces, it's a homeless girl who helps him. (The woman of whom she demands an inhaler is Amelia. That's coincidence.)

Jackson agonises about his own daughter, who is about to be taken away from him. He'd seen too many crimes to be complacent about her safety. And he knows what it's like to be left behind when someone's murdered. Jackson's life, like Julia's and Amelia's, like Theo's, falls into 'before' and 'after'.

Jackson does have some other problems, which he deals with by pretty much ignoring them: they're mostly alluded to after the fact, rather than described as they happen. Suffice to say, taking pity on bigotted old widows in search of their lost kitties isn't the sinecure it might appear.

At first I wasn't sure how Michelle's story fitted with the two other threads, both of which are set in Cambridge and both of which concern the grief and guilt of survivors. Gradually it became clear that Michelle's story is intimately entwined, albeit at one remove, with Theo's and Jackson's and Amelia's.

Not only are all the cases resolved (albeit not in the 'book him, Danno' mode) but there are some surprising happy endings. I was especially happy that Amelia, spinsterish and miserable, found joy on the banks of the Cam.

NB: I haven't been watching the TV adaptation, but I'm inclined to agree with that the story makes much less sense, sheerly for meteorological reasons, transposed to Edinburgh.

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