Thursday, May 19, 2005

Just Read: Kate Atkinson's Case Histories

I already had Case Histories, Kate Atkinson's fourth novel, on my To Be Read pile(s), but I admit that when the LBC chose it as the first Read This! pick, I bumped it up and started reading.

[BTW, am I the only one who hates this cover?]

I found the first three chapters --the case histories themselves-- tough going. The writing didn't engage me and reading three tragic episodes back-to-back was a little wearying. I finally became a little more engaged with the novel with the appearance of the PI whose cases these would become. Jackson Brodie seemed to me a more interesting and engaging character than all the dysfunctional, unhappy people in the case histories. Not that Jackson isn't dysfunctional and unhappy -- he is, but he's witty about it. This guy has a sense of humor about his misery, while the subjects of the case histories just seem so dreadfully earnest in their suffering. I guess I can safely say that Atkinson's decision to organize her novel around the three "case histories" felt contrived to me and not entirely successful. I think the novel would have been better and stronger had the material been organized differently (perhaps losing the "case histories" as separate entities and reworking them more smoothly into the narrative).

I also found Atkinson's narrative coy -- she flashes her hand but then holds it back, refusing to reveal information her characters already know. For example, when Jackson uncovers the key piece of information regarding the Laura Wyre case, he calls his client (her long-grieving father) and tells him he'll mail him a postcard with the information. What? Is that believable? Oh yes, I spend ten years obsessing about my daughter's case and when the PI I finally hired to look into it calls and says he's solved it, I just say okay, don't need to know, I'll wait to get that postcard... Please. And that little unbelievable exchange comes a little after Atkinson interrupts the narrative when the woman Jackson is interviewing says Oh I know who the killer is... Well, we don't. Could you tell us? Show us? Nope -- Jackson apparently has better things to do, and so does Atkinson. We must wait until they feel like showing us... That's a little too coy for my taste.

Other things also annoyed me:

  • The little beggar girl that just kept popping up. I just wanted to shout to the characters -- take a look at her! Isn't it obvious she'll turn out to be important! And of course, she is...
  • The Carolyn character. Obviously, since she was given her own chapters, she must be important to the case histories. And indeed she is... It just takes a while to become apparent (frankly, too long).
  • Why does Jackson put up with the secretary from hell? Does she have something on him we don't know about? Otherwise, it makes no sense to me that Jackson would employ this dour, nasty woman with no apparent redeeming qualities.
I did like that the resolution of the cases was surprising (a little contrived and manipulative, perhaps, but still interesting). I was also thankful that towards the end of the novel the atmosphere of utter, pervasive failure and despair surrounding all the characters lifted a little. There are no happy endings, just hopeful endings. And that's good enough for me.

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As for me, well I found Case Histories to be hard going. For one thing you have to go 60 pages before you get anything that might reasonably be called a scene (in dramatic terms) in which two or more actors engage in a dialogue. And to my mind that ain't the best way to proceed. So I began to skip. Fast. Which is not, of course, the ideal way to read a novel. You should read every word, but I'm afraid I am very old-fashioned about these things and I expect the writer to give me some help. Reading a novel is suppose to be fun, at least in my estimation; it's supposed to be an enjoyable, interesting, satisfying experience; it's not supposed to be a whole lot of hard, tedious work.

Anyway, I did stick with the book, after a fashion, and after a couple of hundred pages or so I began to see a little more virtue in it. And by the end I could also see, very clearly, that if the material had been organised differently, Case Histories could have been an impressive novel indeed. But it would have been an impressive crime novel. And that, I suspect, is something that Kate Atkinson and her publisher would rather die than admit.

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