Given that the site is newly raised from the dead, it somehow seems fitting that my first review is of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Not only is the book about a series of decades-old cold cases, it’s also a book I read many moons ago, well before this site ever existed and was one I had long left for dead. As a re-read rearing its zombie head, I probably couldn’t have picked a better book for a reboot if I had been trying.
Case Histories is the first in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, which, to date, consists of four books. I am previously on the record as having a big girl crush on Atkinson and loving her non-mystery fiction, and being far more ambivalent (though that might be putting it nicely) about her forays into whodunit fiction. Because I first read this book before I started writing reviews here, I don’t have any in-depth analysis or record of my thoughts on the book then, but I do remember that I was wildly underwhelmed by it and might even go so far as to say I did not like it very much at all.
So why read it again if I found it so dull the first time round? Mostly because although I’ve been living under a literary rock for the past 16 months, I still keep up-to-date with some of the book world’s news and I’ve been reading a lot of buzz about my girl Kate’s latest book, Life After Life. I didn’t have a copy of that on hand, but I was able to get access to this and decided to test the waters to see if it was as disappointing as I remembered.
I suppose this should be a lesson in keeping an open-mind and never saying never or forever closing the book on, well, a book. This time around, Case Histories captivated me from the very first line and I found myself really enjoying it. Strangely, I think that the fact that I had read it previously and had the wispiest of recollections about plot points wound up enhancing my reading experience this time, an odd thing to say about a purported mystery novel (literary or otherwise) I know. The thing is, as far as I’m concerned, Case Histories isn’t really a mystery novel, or at the very least is best not read or approached as one. Sure there are unsolved crimes that kick off the action and set the scene, but at the end of the day, the dead and the why/how/who put them in that state feel so very much beside the point. This book is all about peeking into the lives of the survivors, examining how they cope with grief, how they move on and how their separate but shared losses ultimately unite them. The first time I read this book, I know I approached it like I would an Agatha Christie or something of that ilk, and of course, Atkinson is doing something much different here (honestly, I was struck with how there was an air of Tana French, another mystery writer I adore, to this). Conventional it is not, and since I was reading for plot progression, I was disappointed with the delicate work she had produced.
This time, I knew all of that so I was better prepared for what this book actually is rather than what I thought it would be. Also, because I knew where it was going and how some plots would be resolved (more or less), I was able to just forget about story and focus on the characters and the writing. And what I discovered is that for all my previous grousing, this book is full of the wit and wry cleverness that characterize what I love so very much about Atkinson. She’s such a smart woman and her words positively dance upon the page. Even when she’s talking about grisly, beastly things, you can tell she’s having fun with it, that she loves language, that the act of writing is akin to play for her. As I’ve been spending so much of my own time writing and focusing on developing my craft (gag!), I have found myself seeking out authors who manage to impart an intellectual and stylistic heft to their writing but make it seem effortless and light. Atkinson is so wildly talented that pretty much anything she writes is a joy to read.
I can’t say whether anything struck me or made an impression the first time I read this book, but this time I really appreciated the structure of the novel and the way Atkinson plays the multiple storylines off of one another. Though it probably requires a might suspension of disbelief to accept that so many separate people who have no business knowing one another save for their common acquaintance (Jackson) would have their lives intersect in so many ways, I liked the mirroring and echoing that took place. Not realistic, but as a narrative device/instrument, it tickled me. Without digressing into a discussion on my love of multiple/parallel universes as explored through fiction, this clearly was close enough on the color wheel to thrill me in a similar way. Atkinson isn’t really subtle about the way moments recur through the different threads, knotting them together, but it didn’t feel especially heavy-handed to me either. Mostly I just kept thinking how cleverly constructed the book was and I appreciated the forethought that had clearly gone into it.
I’d wager it’s been about 7 years since my first reading of Case Histories and undoubtedly my tastes have changed (hopefully refined) as a reader. I suspect that I just wasn’t sufficiently well-read when I first tried this one to really get it. I have no intention of revisiting every book I’ve previously pooh-poohed, but I am glad that I revisited this one. I had written off the other three books in the series as not to my taste, but now I can look forward to making my way through them at some point. More books by Kate Atkinson is never a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.
Oh, right—I completely neglected to mention anything about plot (give me a break, it’s been a while). In a nutshell, the book revolves loosely around three cold cases (one a five-year-old girl who went missing one summer night and was never found, one a solicitor’s daughter who was brutally exsanguinated by a wild-eyed mystery man at her father’s offices, and the final a young mother who killed her husband with an axe to the head for waking the baby) that wind up the purview of down-on-his-luck private detective Jackson Brodie, who has been crippled by his own set of losses. As I said above, the novel does somewhat nonchalantly explore the cases and provide the survivors (and readers) with a resolution, the bulk of the story really focuses on the lives of those left behind and gives us a peek into their psyches. Read it for that and not for the mysteries themselves.
Rating: 4 out of 5