Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When Will There Be Good News?

by Kate Atkinson
Boston, Little, Brown, 2008
400 pages     Fiction

There was never a more appropriate book title than When Will There Be Good News?, and I don’t believe that I have ever read a book that began with more bad news.

Kate Atkinson creates murder mysteries with remarkable female protagonists, resilient, funny, strong and fated. She has also created an idiosyncratic detective, Jackson Brodie, although Jackson doesn’t appear until at least 100 pages into this particular mystery.

Joanna Hunter is a Scottish doctor with a horrific past—a tale that is recounted in the very first chapter of the book. Her siblings, mother, and dog are all killed in a random act of violence. Married now and with a young baby, her world seems to be tipping upside down because the killer has just been released on parole. Reggie is Joanna’s babysitter, sixteen years old, with a horrific history of her own. Louise is a police detective who is trying to warn Joanna about the release of the killer at the same time she is working on a case of domestic abuse and murder and trying to work her way out of a difficult marriage.  

Jackson Brodie has his own problems. On his way home from Edinburgh, he is involved in a fatal train wreck, an event which brings all these disparate events crashing together. As in all Atkinson novels, there is no hidden killer; all the details of the murder and mayhem are in plain sight. Brodie doesn’t come in at the last moment and explain everything. We know all the details from the very beginning, although in this book, there are some surprises left for the ending.

What Atkinson wants to explore is what is in the hearts of the actors; why do they respond in the way that they do to what is happening to them. In When Will There Be Good News? she is also exploring coincidence. As Jackson Brodie says, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” One reviewer says that “what seems of most interest to Atkinson isn’t the solving of crimes, but the solving of the problem of being alive. What happens to those left behind, the ones held hostage by sorrow and disappointment? How do we pull ourselves out of the rubble of grief? How do we cope with the death of a loved one, transcend a childhood worthy of Dickens, survive the accident of having married the wrong person? How do we get what we need?”

The women characters are particularly strong in When Will There Be Good News? Reggie, the teenager, is delightfully spunky, and it is a fulfilling to read about her tenacity and the remarkable way in which she views the world. She is a girl you would love to know. The way in which Joanna Hunter solves her particular problem, although gory, is just the way you hope you would act if you were in her desperate situation. I really liked Louise, the detective, because she is a character with a biting personality; a person you might enjoy hating.

This is such a literary book; in the world of sound bites and 400 character tweets, it is nice to know that there are some people who know literature and poetry and can (wonder of wonders) recite verse. Atkinson’s style is not the usual detective novel style, and as I entered her universe with Case Histories, I was a bit put off because I was expecting all plot and not literary brilliance.  I quickly warmed to her novels and remain a huge advocate of her brilliance.

I highly recommend When Will There Be Good News, but I would suggest that you begin with Case Histories and then One Good Turn. The fourth book in the series, Started Early, Took My Dog came out in 2011. As I noted in a previous review, the BBC has a television series called Case Histories which is now available on DVD.

Kate Atkinson’s website:

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