My friend Jemidar and I put off reading this, the fourth of Kate Atkinson’s novels featuring former police officer and former private detective Jackson Brodie, because we heard it ended in a cliffhanger. We don’t like hanging from cliffs and thought we’d wait until the next Jackson Brodie novel was published before putting ourselves in that situation. Turns out that Atkinson is not planning to write any more books in the series in the foreseeable future, so we decided to delay no longer. As it happens, we were also wrong in thinking that this novel ends in a cliffhanger. Although the ending’s not tied up in a neat bow, it does have a sense of completeness to it, all the while leaving open the possibility that Atkinson could change her mind and return to writing about Jackson Brodie at some point in the future.
This installment in the series is set in and around Leeds and in Whitby in Northern Yorkshire. Jackson is trying to track down the birth mother of a woman in New Zealand. His investigation leads him to chance encounters with a retired policewoman working as a security officer, a small child, an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia and an abused dog. From those encounters spins the story of a murder which occurred in 1975, police corruption and child abduction. However, the crimes are not the point of the novel. As she does in the earlier Jackson Brodie novels – and, for that matter, in her standalone works - Atkinson uses the plot to explore themes of grief, loss, loneliness, dysfunctional family relationships and mortality.
Atkinson’s characters are not happy, or if they are happy it’s unlikely to last. They are vulnerable, damaged and lost, looking for connection and only sometimes finding it. For them, loving is fraught with danger, being loved is temporary at best, but they still strive for both. This sounds grim, and it is. And yet, Atkinson’s elegant, ironic prose, her deft characterization and the intelligence, compassion and humour of her writing make her novels a joy to read. The most poignant and haunting scenes in this novel involve the secondary characters: little Courtney with her collection of belongings, her magic wand and her fingers forming stars; Tilly as she slowly sinks into dementia, the loyal Yorkshire terrier rescuing its new master.
A reader who expects a simple mystery or detective story from the Jackson Brodie novels will probably be disappointed. Atkinson eschews a conventional linear narrative. Instead, she jumps around in time and uses interior monologues that at times border on stream of consciousness to advance the narrative. In addition, the work is full of literary allusions (the title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem) and allusions to quantum mechanics (Shrödinger’s cat appears more than once). Atkinson is not afraid to use improbable coincidences in the plot, a technique that has the potential to annoy fans of more traditional crime fiction. However, the effect of chance encounters and the seemingly random choices people make are themes that run all through Atkinson’s writing and reinforce the sense she gives of the unpredictability of life.
If this is indeed the last Jackson Brodie novel, then it is a fitting end to his career. While I’d like to see him return, I completely understand if Atkinson decides to retire him permanently. At least he’ll have that lovely dog to keep him company on his travels and to stop him from feeling too sorry for himself.
I love Kate Atkinson’s writing and it has been a joy to read this particular novel with Jemidar.