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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When

Review by Audrey Chaix.

An orphaned teenage girl. A train wreck. A kidnapped mother and her baby. When will there be good news indeed? From the first chapter, Atkinson’s novel is riddled with the worst news you could ever get: a stranger comes out of the wheat in a sun scorched field, to stab a mother, her children and the family dog. Only 6 year old Joanna runs away from the slaughter, scarred for life.

The novel opens with death. It unfolds with more dead people, accidents, break ups, abduction, beaten up wives … So much so that telling your friends the storyline, without having them read the book, might be a bad idea: it almost sounds like a Barbara Cartland novel, where each page brings on a new ordeal and each character is linked to the others in some way – until the puzzle all falls into place.

However, Kate Atkinson masters her art so finely that When Will There Be Good News? is not sad, not even overly dramatic. I read the book twice. Twice I loved it, and I couldn’t help but wonder: how can she make us feel so close to the characters, when the plot is so obviously far-fetched? How did she master such a page-turner without making you feel that each new event is one event too much?

The best answer I could come up with – for can you really find a rational reason why you enjoy a novel, other than ‘I couldn’t let go of it while reading it?’ –  was that Kate Atkinson makes her reader relate, in some way, to every single one of her characters. I’m a 25 year old young female student, and yet, somehow, I can relate to 50 year old Jackson Brodie, who used to be a policeman and a soldier, and is now in security. Because underneath, he has the same weaknesses than every other person on this planet, and Atkinson shows them to us.

How? She gives him a chance to speak -but not in a too obvious first person narrative style. She cleverly walks into his head and talks from there, analyzing each thought of his, even the stupidest. And what is more human than being stupid – it happens to the best of us, only we don’t let these thoughts get out before we’ve checked them – or do we … ?

And it doesn’t only work with Jackson, it also works with Reggie Chase, the orphaned teenage girl who couldn’t be unluckier – dad died when she wasn’t even born, mum drowned about a year before the start of the novel, brother is bad news, and her beloved employer suddenly vanishes into thin air. Reggie is maybe my favourite character in the novel. She is so utterly lost and yet tenacious, she never lets go of her everso Scottish pragmatism; she’d walk the earth bare foot if someone she loved needed her. And, last but not least, she is, without even realising it, so funny – not because she cracks jokes all the time, but because she has such a sense of timing that what she says hits home every time. She is mature beyond her years, and so fragile and childlike at the same time – Atkinson caught her in that in-between moment when a girl is not a child anymore, but not an adult yet. And after she created this touching character, she threw her into the worst ordeal she could think of so that she could watch her deal with it and grow from it. Maybe it’s because not so long ago, I was 16 myself – but in a way, there is a little Reggie, lost and strong, scared and willing to make things change, hidden in each of us.

There is Louise, too. DCI Louise Monroe, that we met in The Good Turn, another of Kate Atkinson’s novels set in Edinburgh. Louise had a massive crush on Jackson Brodie in the previous book, before we find her again in Where Will There Be Good News?, unhappily married to an Irish orthopaedist, wanting something to happen without exactly knowing what it is that she’s yearning for. And hating herself for it. Louise is so demanding towards herself that you want to whisper in her ear, “Give yourself a break, love. You’re only human, you’re allowed to be weak, to make mistakes”.

She hates herself for not being able to protect every person she thinks she’s responsible for; she hates herself for not being the wife she thinks her husband would deserve; she hates herself for not being able to connect with her in-laws. Who doesn’t recognize themselves in these weaknesses, these doubts, these shortcomings?

Maybe this is why Atkinson’s novel is so different: the author gives us well-rounded characters and puts them in extreme situations, and she observes how they react, how they interact with each other. But this wouldn’t be enough if it wasn’t so well written. Atkinson has a true sense of rhythm, and she has such a versatile style that each character does have their own voice, so that it’s impossible to mix up Reggie’s chapters with Jackson’s or Louise’s. More than that, her sense of balance is so right that there is never a lull, never a moment when you think, well, this is dragging a bit, let’s move on. It’s as if the novel takes you in its arms and ships you through the stormy storyline, carrying you with words and rhythm.

There is an unmistakable sense of doom pervading the whole novel – made obvious by Reggie’s constant quoting of the Latin and Greek authors she studies for coursework. Fate is what seems to rule over the world, with people acting as puppets. However, in my opinion, there is more to it: it’s not about people being subjected to fate without having their say. It’s more about the characters living with it, making the most of what life gives them, with a little twist once in a while, to make things happen – or not happen. Louise’s marriage is doomed from the start – but making the decision to end it gives her power again over her life. That could be what we keep in our minds when putting the book back on its shelf: that there are events upon which we have no control whatsoever – but we are the only ones who can decide whether we’ll make it through or not.

Black Swan.  Paperback. (2009).  ISBN: 978-0552772457. 480pp.

As Audrey’s gran would say:  reading is not a hobby to her, it’s a vice. Audrey reads literally everywhere: in her bed, in the loo, on trains and planes, during classes …  she almost killed herself once as she was boarding a train while reading – her leg fell between the train and the platform and her shin still bears the marks. She didn’t drop the book though …
……She is particularly drawn to fiction:  novels and plays mainly.  She also enjoys writing short stories and pesters her friends with them so they can tell her what they think of them.
……Apart from reading, Audrey enjoys the theatre, the cinema and cranberry juice. She also suffers from a long life addiction to chocolate.

10 comments on “When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

  1. annebrooke
    September 9, 2009

    Fabulous review! I love the Atkinson Brodie series and devour every one of them when they turn up. This has been in my reading pile for a while now, but I can’t imagine why I haven’t opened it yet. I shall definitely be taking it on my holiday later this week now – thanks for the nudge!

    🙂

    Axxx

  2. Lisa
    September 9, 2009

    Thanks for this first review, Audrey. It sounds like a splendid book and I’m keen to see how Atkinson handles such an unusual plot. I also have this in my tbr pile, so will bump it up a few places. Oh and I really like that cover – seems particularly poignant after reading your first paragraph.

  3. Jackie
    September 9, 2009

    Splendid debut, Audrey! This sounds like such an emotional book with so many horrible things happening. I am impressed that the author kept the voices separate, I believe that’s harder to do than people think & it’s so confusing when not done right. I’m not sure if I could read this book with all the awful stuff happening, but it’s a testament to your review that I’m still curious about what happens to everyone. The cover does match your first paragraph in a powerful way.

  4. Lib
    September 9, 2009

    Thanks girls! I was a bit nervous about writing a review in English as it is not my first language, but your kind words make me want to do it again!
    I loved this book, as well One Good Turn, that takes place before WWTBGN, some of the characters are in both books.

  5. brideofthebookgod
    September 9, 2009

    This is on my pile for reading on holiday in October. Thanks for the great review.

  6. Kae
    September 10, 2009

    Great job, Audrey! Your review is so well written that you might as well review books professionally, particularly because you make the case for choosing this book so convincingly.

    I hope you pay more attention when boarding trains nowadays! That was scary!

  7. Moira
    September 10, 2009

    Tremendous review, Audrey – and welcome to Vulpes.

    I’ve never read any Kate Atkinson, but like Jackie I’m immensely impressed by her ability to keep voices distinctive and separate. That’s not an easy trick to pull off – and it’s one of things you only notice if it’s done badly …

  8. Syracuse Cat
    September 10, 2009

    Hi, Lib: well you did tell me about this book, but I thought I’d read your review anyway, and I loved it. Now, the question is: When can I come and borrow the book? See you soon, doll.

  9. Translator Chicago
    November 11, 2009

    I read books a lot, but please pardon me, it’s my first time to hear about Atkinson. Reading the review, Ms. Atkinson is a very good author. Thank you for this review. Now, where can I get/purchase the book? Is it available in the local bookstore or maybe here in the net?

  10. Pingback: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson « Page247

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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