Fall reading

The mood for fall reading is dark and mysterious. If there is humour, it should be black.

atkinsonCASE HISTORIES and HUMAN CROQUET Kate Atkinson

I am a great fan of Kate Atkinson. Her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the British Museum,” made a profound impression on me. I love her wit, her way with words, her startling imagery, and her odd characters, who always, at least in part, remind me of someone I’ve observed.

I am working my way through the rest of her books: lately “Case Histories,” a mystery, and “Human Croquet,” her second novel.

Atkinson’s books absolutely require a second reading. They are so full of complex detail that I can’t imagine anyone not having to go back and reread to pick up pieces they didn’t fully “get” the first time around — and this is not just for her three mysteries, but for her novels as well. I am sure she must draw an enormous diagram, all links and arrows, on the wall when beginning a book.

In “Case Histories,” naturally enough, there are three case histories brought to Jackson Brodie’s attention. (Brodie is a former police officer turned private detective. ) Some of the links between cases are obvious to the reader: others aren’t. Even Brodie isn’t fully informed, as some of the characters have lives (and chapters) entirely their own. The majority of the puzzle gets satisfyingly filled in by the end, though some things are left ambiguous. But the joy of “Case Histories” is in the prose as much as in the plot: wildly imagined, bizarre and convoluted, effortlessly flowing:

Amelia envisaged that between York and the royal-infested Scottish Highlands there was a grimy wasteland of derelict cranes and abandoned mills and betrayed, yet still staunch, people. Oh and moorland, of course, vast tracts of brooding landscape under lowering skies, and across this heath strode brooding, lowering men intent on reaching their ancestral houses, where they were going to fling open doors and castigate orphaned, yet resolute, governesses.

Reading Atkinson, you can imagine having drinks with a funny, brilliant friend who is relating a story in her typical manic style, with many parenthetical asides, each with enough material for another story.

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“Human Croquet” starts out weirdly and becomes weirder as the book progresses. It begins at the beginning of the world. The passing of aeons is dealt with rapidly and then, in Shakespearean times, we hear the story of a family, a house and a tree.

Next, we are in the same area in the 1960s, in the teenage life of Isobel Fairfax. Isobel’s life has been turned upside down by mysterious losses: the permanent loss of her mother and the temporary loss of her father, so her life is full of the unexplained and — perhaps as a result — she has a powerful imagination. However, things are about to get more odd still as Isobel starts to move in and out of alternate realities. Her world feels strange and dreamlike:

I pull out a deck-chair and join him in the twilight garden. The rooks are coming home late, hurtling on their rag wings toward the Lady Oak, racing the night, caw-caw-caw. Maybe they’re afraid of being transformed into something else if they don’t get back to the tree in time, before the sun dips below the horizon that saucers blackly beyond the tree. Perhaps they’re frightened of shifting into human shape.

I couldn’t put it down. There are questions left unanswered at the end: it’s up to the reader to choose which of many paths is the likeliest one to explain Isobel’s experiences.

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niffeneggerTHE THREE INCESTUOUS SISTERS Audrey Niffenegger

I saw Audrey Niffenegger at this year’s Vancouver Writers’ Festival. I’d read her first novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” but I wasn’t prepared for her dramatic presence and the discovery that in addition to being a writer she is an artist and a creator of handmade books. She showed some images from her visual novel The Three Incestuous Sisters and I was immediately hooked by her dark imagination.

The text is minimal and you have to see the images (all aquatints) to follow the story. Audrey Niffenegger says:

When I try to explain The Three Incestuous Sisters to someone who hasn’t seen it, I tell them to imagine a silent film made from Japanese prints, a melodrama of sibling rivalry, a silent opera that features women with very long hair and a flying green boy. I never try to explain what it means; you can find that out for yourself.

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No Great MischiefNO GREAT MISCHIEFAlistair MacLeod

I had great expectations of this book. MacLeod is a highly respected, prize-winning (Impac) author who writes about history, family and community. “No Great Mischief” follows the family of the Clann Calum Ruagh through their childhood in Cape Breton and their adult lives working as miners on Ontario, with flashbacks to earlier times and some parts of the story set in the present day.

Although I was expecting to enjoy this book, somehow I just didn’t. The repetition that others have found poetic, I found just repetitive; the italicized Gaelic phrases on every page stopped the flow of my reading. I could see the beauty of the writing and the poignancy of the story, but dispassionately and at a distance. I found the history passages intrusive and the whole thing was too slow for my mood. In my Original Book Club (as opposed to my Other Book Club), we were evenly split, with half of us absolutely loving the book (“poetic,” “elegiac,” “full of contrasts”) and the rest finding it mildly to exceedingly annoying.

Maybe one day I will try it again, and this time I will know what frame of mind I should be in to get the most out of it.

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2 thoughts on “Fall reading

  1. Love Kate! Discovered her years ago with Behind the Scenes and read Croquet several years ago. Compelling stuff! I seem to remember that she was in her late 40s (even 50?) when she got her first book published. It was so amazingly assured that it seemed extraordinary that it could be a first novel.
    Got to disagree about Mischief, though. I felt throughout that I could dissolve into tears at any moment – elegiac, yes.
    Finola

  2. So glad you love Kate, too! I’m currently rereading Not the End of the World, which has been nicely described by Beautiful Freak: “Each story in this strangely beautiful collection is set in its own alternative universe, all laced together by tenous links and threads.” Real people are caught up in Greek mythology, dystopian events, and magic realism.

    Yes, I might have known that you would come down on the elegiac side of the fence re Mischief. But, as indicated, I’m willing to reconsider at a later date, she said magnanimously.

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