The rooks are coming home late, hurtling on their rag wings toward the Lady Oak, racing the night, caw-caw-caw. Maybe they’re afraid of being transformed into something else if they don’t get back to the tree in time, before the sun dips below the horizon that saucers blackly beyond the tree. Perhaps they’re frightened of shifting into human shape.Not my favourite of Kate Atkinson's novels, though it's growing on me as I reflect on the story and the way it's told.
What's it like to be a caw-cawing crepuscular rook ripping through the sables of night? (p.64)
It's 1960: Isobel is sixteen, and lives with her geeky science-fiction-reading brother Charles, her father Gordon, her stepmother Debbie and Aunt Vinnie in a house named Arden on 'the streets of trees', a housing estate built where once a forest grew. (Isobel's ancestors were lords of the forest; Isobel's glamorous fairytale mother Eliza was, possibly, last seen in the small remaining patch of woodland.)
Isobel begins to experience what she believes are time-slips: visions of earlier times, messages from the past. But do they actually mean anything? Are they simply dreams and nightmares? Is her adoration of Malcolm Lovat (who's inexplicably oblivious to the bond between them) really doomed to end in tragedy? Is Charles onto something when he claims that aliens abducted their mother? And maybe Debbie's not so mad after all, talking about how every object in the room moves as soon as she turns her back ...
There are a lot of fairytale motifs in Human Croquet, more than initially met my eye. Hansel and Gretel lost in the wood, of course; but there's a lost girl and a telltale slipper (Cinderella), and Eliza is described as having 'rook-hair, milk-skin, blood-lips'. Charles, fostered by a nice couple, is returned with a thin-lipped 'he bites'. The greasy lodger, Mr Rice, might be victim of a rather more modern transformation. Isobel holds onto Malcolm through transformation after Tam-Lin-esque transformation. At the root of it all is the myth of the faery bride, who came out of the forest to old Sir Francis Fairfax and vanished back into the greenwood before his eyes. And like all good fairytales there's an underlying current of human nastiness: concealed pregnancies, mistaken identity, incest, rape, murder, betrayal.
The twist at the end doesn't quite work for me, and lessens what's gone before: but Atkinson's writing is as joyful, poetic and witty as ever, and again she manages to transform a grim (or Grimm) tale into a light, amusing and thought-provoking story.
Also, unsure why Ms Atkinson mis-spells Yggdrasil as 'Ysggradil' throughout ...