the guardian Fri 15 August 2008
Kate Atkinson threw her readers a curveball a few books back. Starting her career with a bang by winning the Whitbread Book of the Year for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson had seemed to set out a stall for smart, playful yet astringent novels in which the traditional family saga was cheerfully blown to pieces.
Behind the Scenes began, like Tristram Shandy, with the conception of its narrator, and then ploughed through the rest of her life with tremendous energy and subversive humour. Atkinson's next two novels, Human Croquet and especially Emotionally Weird, covered similar material (with some swipes at academia woven in) but were increasingly formally complex, and not always happily so. She began twisting her plots into ever more elaborate shapes and playing games with literary in-jokes, varying fonts and pages of blackness. Depending on how you chose to look at it, she was either breaking the rules of narrative in the grand tradition of Sterne or writing herself into a meta-fictional corner.
And then came the switch. A Literary writer with a capital L (though one with a nicely disreputable sense of fun), Atkinson unexpectedly turned to crime fiction. Perhaps she wanted to see if the limitations of genre were paradoxically liberating, or perhaps she just wanted to play literary pranks of a more subtle variety. Frankly, it's hard to care when the results are this good. The three novels featuring retired police inspector Jackson Brodie - Case Histories, One Good Turn and now When Will There Be Good News? - are delightful evidence of an author unbound. Swiping a polished dagger through her Gordian knot, Atkinson began tackling life and death and fate and love with a freedom and fluency unseen in her earlier novels. By becoming a crime writer, she has - in a way that other "literary" types may wish to note - become a better literary writer than ever: funny, bracingly intelligent and delightfully prickly.
When Will There Be Good News? opens with an act of shocking violence. Six-year-old Joanna is out walking with sister Jessica, baby brother Joseph and mother Gabrielle when they're suddenly attacked by Andrew Decker, a complete stranger. Joanna hides in the long grass and is saved, but her brother, sister and mother are stabbed to death.
Thirty years later, Joanna is now Dr Joanna Hunter, a successful GP in Edinburgh with a baby, married to Neil, a local businessman. For a nanny, Joanna hires 16-year-old Reggie, whose mother has recently drowned on holiday and who is taking private tutoring for her Greek and Latin A-levels from terminally ill born-again Christian Ms MacDonald. Reggie has no experience with small children ("What was there to know? They were small, they were helpless, they were confused, and Reggie could identify with all of that"), but the fit is a comfortable one for both her and Dr Hunter, despite Reggie's need to keep drug-dealing brother Billy away from her working life.
Brodie, meanwhile, is in Yorkshire, stealing a strand of hair from a two-year-old boy. At first we think he's investigating a kidnapping, but it turns out that the boy may be Jackson's own son; his mother is ex-girlfriend Julia from the previous novels, now estranged from Jackson and claiming he isn't the father. Hair in his possession, Jackson tries to return to his new home in London. This turns out to be surprisingly difficult.
Back in Edinburgh, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, who nearly had a romantic connection with Brodie in One Good Turn, is now happily if surprisingly married to jolly orthopaedic surgeon Patrick ("He was Irish, which always helped"). Monroe is the one who has to alert Dr Hunter that Decker has served his full sentence and is about to be released. Coincidentally (in a book filled with them), she's back at the same house the next day, interviewing Neil Hunter, whose arcade has burned down in a suspicious fire.
Events ramp up at considerable speed. There is a surprising train crash which, again coincidentally, happens in Ms MacDonald's backyard while Reggie is house-sitting. The train crash is, in fact, caused by Ms MacDonald losing control of her car, and Reggie rushes out into the night to look for survivors, saving the life of none other than Brodie, who really, really got on the wrong train.
Reggie is also alarmed at the sudden disappearance of Dr Hunter, and pesters DCI Monroe to investigate, even though her husband swears she's only gone off to visit a sick aunt. Is this true? Has the reappearance of Decker caused her to flee? Or is there something even worse going on?
Lovers of the crime genre have given Atkinson a hard time for her use of coincidence, and truth be told, the first half of When Will There Be Good News? can be a little hard to swallow. There are a lot of characters with similar backgrounds to keep track of, and they all keep running into each other in increasingly unlikely ways. There was even a point halfway through - when the ID of one character turned up in the pocket of another - when I groaned audibly.
But if authors weren't allowed to use coincidence, then there'd be no EM Forster (there'd certainly be no Howards End). The ID issue is resolved, and you begin to see that Atkinson has larger issues in mind. By putting coincidence so firmly in control of her plot - all the way through to its very last page, where two protagonists are revealed to have an even deeper connection - she starts to raise larger questions of destiny and fate, much as Paul Thomas Anderson does in his great film Magnolia
Both works acknowledge archly that we are participating in a work of fiction and that the rules are different here, but they're also working towards a greater truth than simple realism allows: how intertwined are we, as family, as lovers, as humans? How much are we governed by circumstances beyond our control? It is impossible, Atkinson argues, to take any action in a vacuum, to live your own life not completely bound up in the lives of others. "A coincidence," Brodie says more than once, "is just an explanation waiting to happen."
Atkinson's writing continues to be wonderful. A group of 12-year-old girls is "all fruity lipgloss and incredibly tedious secrets". Young Joanna's father, a famous novelist, is "'the Howard Mason' (or sometimes, not smiling, 'that Howard Mason', which was different although Joanna wasn't sure how)". "I have no idea how to love another human being," Louise Monroe says, "unless it's by tearing them to pieces and eating them."
The literary references are funnier, too, with chapter titles such as "She Would Get the Flowers Herself", or Monroe realising, in a lovely moment, that in her marriage she's "the golden bowl" and "sooner or later the crack would show". And Atkinson takes no prisoners as she heads towards a defiantly feel-bad ending, in which the noblest characters are capable of questionable actions and even the happiest are surrounded by unease.
Kate Atkinson is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely surprising novelist. In the best possible way, I have no idea what she might write next. Only that I'll certainly want to read it.
· Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go is published by Walker Books.