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Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog – TLS

13/08/2010

For anyone writing a series of novels there are questions about the game of catch-up: with successive episodes, how much back story should you provide for those new to the party, and can you avoid the danger of alienating readers already in the know? In Started Early, Took My Dog, the fourth of Kate Atkinson’s books about the private detective Jackson Brodie, the dilemma is openly acknowledged. Twice we are told that the résumé of Brodie’s life is “more dramatic” than the “ennui of living it”. It is a rare loss of nerve on Atkinson’s part, not least because one of her guiding ideas elegantly accommodates the problem. The reverberations of Brodie’s past and the repetition of certain images across her books are of a piece with a sense that we are each our own museum – a generous notion housing us all.

Atkinson’s triumph in this series is in making over the logic of the crime novel – of hunter and prey – into a realm where women are heard and felt. (Here, this is complicated by the aping of masculinity: “What had happened to women?”, her detective wonders, observing a roomful of drunken and marauding social workers.) She avoids the genre’s pitfalls and tendency to exploitation by making her victims fully human, never ciphers; and having no interest in types. There are no discussions here of “the mind of a serial killer”, and Brodie is increasingly adrift of the story rather than key to it.

Despite this, her protagonist is something of a female fantasy as a tough and tender man, and this leaves Atkinson comically scrambling for a theory to explain women’s conflicting desire: “Hegelian synthesis. Dualism . . . ?”. Women are moved by his imperfections (“the dent of a chickenpox scar, the cast of despair”) though such feelings are usually unrequited. In his desires, at least, Brodie is a conventional man – falling for a woman’s wielded breasts, marrying a con-artist without detecting she is “designed . . . to appeal”. But as he ages, and reflecting the times, the modifying voices in his head are increasingly those of women. It is this – and his sister’s rape and murder – that makes the divide between the sexes so acutely felt. “Why did men kill women?” is the question that plagues Brodie.

He is a Yorkshireman, inheriting from his father, a miner, a grief for a world now destroyed and forgotten. It is a world he never inhabited yet which haunts him, and from which he harbours a reflexive way of thinking (“Fucking Thatcher”). Brodie’s lodestar is the understanding his father gleaned at the bottom of a coal pit: “Who said life is fair?”. A lover observes, “You can take the boy out of his collectivist past, but you can’t take the collectivist past out of the boy”. His own career in the army and police – somewhere back there he has killed men – is coupled with sentimentality (a liking for country music) and pain. He is haunted by the events of his twelfth year, when his sister was killed so harrowingly, his mother died of cancer and his brother hanged himself. The suffering and “disrepair” this caused ally him in some fashion with victimized femininity – all the lost girls who are the subject of his investigations, and who are Atkinson’s quarry.

In earlier outings with Brodie (Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News?), Atkinson tells the stories of women battered and slain (there are women who kill, though their actions tend to be comprehensible, the result of child abuse or post-natal depression) and scrutinizes survivors of these disasters, “witnesses to the unthinkable”. In doing so, she is asking us to think about why it is so hard to imagine a “utopia” where women might walk without fear. Her answer has something to do with “the eternal maternal”, the primal bond of mother and child at the heart of everything, which leaves men “kicked out of paradise”, and women and children the symbolic image of a world an outsider might want to smash up.

These destroyers of worlds, however, are contrasted with the “mutinous” characters Atkinson favours, the would-not-be-goods like Brodie and like Tracy, the retired policewoman in this new novel, who battle with life, even as they try to mend it, wary of the “shites” still running the world, and acting as shepherds to the lost sheep that fall victim to them. As a result, along with the many easy pleasures of Atkinson’s writing – her great resourcefulness and fluency, her partisan wit (“Should you marry a man who loved Wagner?”), her revelling in language’s jostling and borrowing – there is also retributive zeal.

Arriving every two years, like chapters in a fictional compendium of these shoddy times, Atkinson’s canon of crime brings an energizing sense of work written to the minute and to the bone – precise articulations of a “disunited kingdom”. In this latest instalment, as Woolworth’s closes down and the Polish workers start to return home, Brodie abandons his BlackBerry and succumbs to the iPhone. Like the country he roams through, looking for clues to a woman’s identity, he is now crueller, older and more violent, tendencies that are not ameliorated by his growing interest in poetry, Beethoven, Betty’s teashops and world classics.

Set mainly in Leeds, the story moves between the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper cast darkness over so many Northern towns, and a shiny, merciless present. In both eras there are murdered women and stolen children, but in the interim some things have changed. Men aren’t what they used to be, everyone keeps saying, but Atkinson’s feeling for the past is one of regret, not nostalgia. After all, what men used to be left women with little choice: they could be, like the wives of the novel’s corrupt policemen, kitchen saints on “valium and tea”; or like the women they are mixed up with through work, “slappers and bints”.

There is more room for manoeuvre now, not that the Carole Braithwaites of this world would know it. They are still struggling alone, strung between giddy kiddy love and drink or drugs in a dangerous carnival of highs and lows, that to the coppers, five quid in hand, knocking at the door for sex, looks like mental illness. But this time around, some women do come through. Tracy assuages her feeling that she failed to commandeer the first child in danger, by taking the next out of harm’s way: “Save the kid, save the world”, she thinks, and save herself, too, giving herself a chance “to be human, to love”. And for Tilly, an elderly actress with a moth-eaten mind, one of life’s permanently put-upon, there is a heroic last dash to rectify the past by standing up for a child dressed in strange fairy rags.

In all this Brodie does not get star billing, but has to muddle along with everyone else, and his detecting now seems more clueless and haphazard. By Atkinson’s democratic manner, though, we understand that his role is still vital: someone must dig into history, must search, however blindly, for truth to be unearthed.

In the end, there is magic. The star of Atkinson’s show is the Kid. She is the antidote to all the queasy adult talk of “kiddies”: resilient, doughty and firmly planted in the world, with an instructive simplicity (“Sleep. Eat. Repeat”), and an unalloyed sense of her own rightness – the element that gets lost so early and disastrously in women. As she looks at herself in the mirror in her new fairy costume, Tracy tells her how good she looks. “I do”, she agrees.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘All the Lost Girls’, on 12.8.2010, and on the Times website on 11.8.2010 as ‘Kate Atkinson and the Lost Girls’.

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