My only experience of Kate Atkinson's writing until now has been three of the four novels in her Jackson Brodie series, which starts with Case Histories. Quirky is the obvious adjective to describe Atkinson's writing. It has lots of dry humour and sardonic wit, intricate plotting and random connections and coincidences deliberately used to advance the narrative. There's a certain flippancy in the tone which brings into sharp relief the often very serious themes with which Atkinson deals.
This is not a mystery novel, although it does have a mystery element. It's the story of Ruby Lennox, commencing with her conception and birth, which Ruby narrates*. I really love Ruby, who is smart, funny and insightful. Part of Ruby's charm, particularly when she is small, is her adult and very knowing voice. However, this is not just Ruby's story. At the end of each chapter dealing with Ruby's life is another chapter - a "footnote" - which deals with episodes in the life of Ruby's mother Bunty, her grandmother Nell and her great-grandmother Alice. The novel becomes a tale of dysfunctional families, of women who make poor choices when they marry and of difficult relationships between mothers and daughters. In the inter-linking of the stories of these women and the shifts backwards and forwards in time, the meaning of the title becomes clear. The "footnotes" explain things which the characters don't know about their past: the reason for a particular expression on the face of Ruby's great-grandmother in a family portrait, where an heirloom locket comes from, where an ancestor who disappeared actually went to. These are the mysteries which exist in all families. In addition to being a family history, there's also a sense in which this novel is a social history of 20th century England and in particular of the experiences of ordinary people during World War I and World War II.
Although the tone of the novel is generally light-hearted because of the way Ruby tells her story, most of the events it narrates are extremely sad. There are lots of deaths - including deaths of children and animals. The relationships between wives and husbands and between parents and children are far from ideal and very few of the characters lead happy or fulfilled lives. But for all that, this is a book which made me laugh a lot. It's probably one of the funniest sad books I've ever read.
This was Atkinson's first novel and it shows. I see it as having two major and one minor weakness. The first of the major weaknesses is that it's very difficult to keep track of all of the characters in each generation. There's not just Ruby, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to keep track of; Ruby's sisters, her aunts, uncles, cousins, and the sisters and brothers of her grandmother all make an appearance. A list of characters at the front would have saved me from confusion. The second major weakness is that the narrative lost momentum towards the end and took too long to be resolved. A minor weakness is that Ruby's behaviour as a child sometimes was not always consistent with her chronological age and her POV intruded into a "footnote" where it didn't belong.
Overall, this was a good read and I enjoyed sharing the reading experience with my friend Jemidar. Funny, sad, moving and poignant, the novel has lots going for it - notwithstanding its flaws - and deserves a low four stars. However, it's not a novel for everyone. Reading the first chapter will confirm whether or not Atkinson's style appeals.
*An allusion to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: Atkinson acknowledges this by having one of the characters read excerpts of the novel to her sister.