By Dr Shirley Jones
Twenty years ago, Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was published. Its heroine, Ruby Lennox, tells the story of her life from before conception to adulthood with ‘footnotes’ relating to her ancestors, such as her great grandmother who in a moment of despair leaves 6 children to run off with a ‘magician’ or angelic Uncle Albert, who ‘collected good days the way other people collected coins or postcards.’. Cataclysmic historical events such as the two world wars affect Ruby’s family dramatically whilst lesser landmarks, such as the 1953 Coronation and the 1966 World Cup final provide wonderful comic set pieces. At the heart of the novel is a mystery, for the seemingly omniscient Ruby, does not in fact know all.
Family, identity and heritage are consistent themes in Atkinson’s work as is history and the passing of time. Atkinson’s 2004 novel, Case Histories, opens with 3 unexplained crimes from the past which the novel’s hero, Jackson Brodie, is called upon to unravel. As we follow his progress we come to understand that his own personal history is shaped by devastating loss. In the Jackson Brodie series (four novels to date), Atkinson’s plotting is complex and compelling. At the same time these novels are rich tales of contemporary life with all of its comic absurdity, violence, and love.
Atkinson’s recent 2013 Costa Novel Award winner, Life after Life represents the pinnacle of her achievement so far, narrating the multiple possibilities of one woman’s life. Over and over again we are told the tale of Ursula Todd, and her many deaths and extraordinary lives. Astonishingly, this narrative experimentation does not lessen the reader’s emotional involvement with the character but enchants and ensnares.
The most wonderful thing about Atkinson’s writing is that whatever form it takes, family saga, short story, crime novel, experimental fiction, her work is always absolutely readable.
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, 1995
Kate Atkinson, Not the End of the World, 2002
Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, 2004
Kate Atkinson, Life after Life, 2013
Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins, 2015
Shirley will be teaching Life After Life: Reading Kate Atkinson at the Central Library from Thursday 15 October, 2-4.30pm for 8 meetings. If you would like to book on that course you can enrol online here Life After Life: Reading Kate Atkinson