Texas. Raining. Traffic everywhere. The whole world is dark. Shades of red and blue and purple. Bea decides not to get on the bus home, and instead, finds herself in Lucy’s Gas and Food, where Lou recognizes her. Lou offers to drive Bea where she’s going, knowing the Bea is on the run. They head west. They pull off the road and go into Big Spring, TX, pop. 50. Bea finds a cat. Its tag says it is from West, West Texas. They decide to take it home. West is not on any map. They ask around. None of the directions are that helpful. Bea is 18. Lou is 27. A mechanic.
They are running from their pain. There is a disturbing story that is driving Bea. It snows suddenly. Becoming friends. Lou teaches Bea to drive. Bea comes out to Lou, who never came out to her mother before she died. Two men, from the Office of Road Enquiry, are following them, and they want the cat. The women run from them several times. When they finally find West, there’s nothing at the place where the cat’s house would be. Suddenly, the world changes. Buildings and roads appear. They figure out what is going on. You will too. Walden introduces characters you want the best for—she is compassionate with their failings and foibles. You somehow see the world through their eyes. As the epigram from Adrienne Rich says, “All maps are fiction.” And fiction takes you places that you can’t find on a map, that you didn’t know you were going to, and when you get there, you have changed. Fiction is the map.
History is Kate Atkinson’s subject in every book (well every book that I’ve read), not just history in the sense of World War II in Life After Lifeand Transcription, but history in terms of all the pieces of what we have done, experienced, seen or thought about makes us who we are today, and she is an expert in introducing that history one piece at a time, and moving us from one moment to the next to different times and places. And Jackson Brodie, the private detective that she first introduced in Case Histories in 2004, is back again after nearly a 10 year hiatus. He is the centre of this book, and he isn’t, but he is torn apart by all his conflicting and conflicted histories, and he fails to operate in the world he inhabits,, or succeeds despite his failures.
Another part of Atkinson’s genius is the way her major and minor characters all have depth. Almost no one is there just to carry a spear. And, I am always amazed at how she gives just enough of their story to deepen the character, saving more for later. Their are heroes here, and there are very evil people, but most are in between trying to make their way and failing, some failing their way to love or friendship, others failing their way to failure.
I am not going to tell you the story. It involves Brodie and his ex-partner and their son and their dog Dido; it involves women who have been or are being used and controlled by men; it involves women who overcome the darkness; it involves children who find themselves in dark spaces who come through; it involves so many more characters worth meeting, and it involves sex trafficking, Epstein-esque soirees, where we see the evil and the suffering without it wallowing in horror and gore. The characters are glorious and more than worth spending time with. Read the book. Read everything she has written–I feel confident in saying that, despite not having read everything.
When you read a lot, authors come in and out of your field of vision. People you don’t think about for years, books you don’t touch, float into view, and you have to seek them out. I always think I forget what I have read, soon after I put the book down, but then many years later it comes back. A specific scene or character or setting or the whole thing. This weekend was
a flood. J.G. Ballard is always around somewhere–although I don’t need to read them all again right now, that world is too dark. Alasdair Gray died.
Arundhati Roy came back–I’m looking at her new essay collection My Seditious Heart. She is someone who goes into what is happening in the world and looks hard at where we need to go. Terry Eagleton is back. It’s not hard to see the full shelf of his books, but his way of delving into a topic opens up the chance to see his point of view and to fight back. Neil Gaiman and Sandman was right up there over the weekend, as kept getting introduced as the Graphic Novel guy to adults and young people alike. Chris Ware is back–but that is because he has a new book, but also because I ran into a clean copy of Building Stories in the library sale.
I seem to be reading a lot of downbeat graphic fiction at the moment. Maybe it’s what I need to reflect how I feel about where the world is going. The is a huge knot in my stomach at everything that seems so in flux. The same is true of the central character here, and his life is far worse than mine. The book is beautifully drawn, well told and you are drawn into the frustrations of the main characters life.
Set during the 2016 election, and narrated by the the main character who is the father of two young children and separated from his wife. The publisher is the reliably interesting Drawn & Quarterly.
“We see a father navigating life as a single parent and coping with the disintegration of a life-defining relationship. Amid the upheaval are tender moments with his kids—a sleeping child being carried in from the car, Christmas morning anticipation, a late-night cookie after a temper tantrum—and fallible humans drenched in palpable feelings of grief, rage, loss, and overwhelming love. Using anthropomorphized characters as a tactic for tempering an otherwise emotionally fraught situation, Off Season is unaffected and raw, steeped in the specificity of its time while speaking to a larger cultural moment.”
Two volumes of the collected comics available now. Starring Sid Vicous as a ghost helping Fergie find his father, whom he has never met. It’s worth reading. Sid is fun as a sidekick. The base story is set in contemporary Britian–Fergie’s secondary school, Jeremy Kyl style reality TV, and a struggling single-paernt family. In the background are devils from the underworld influencing these characters lives, interacting with them invisibly and overtly and Dorothy Culpepper is an almost one-woman exoricism department within MI5.
Part of the fun is seeing Sid try to come to terms with the 21st century. You realise that it was 45 years that the Sex Pistols tore into our lives.
Read the original–it’s amazing and demoralizing that it still has relevance, but both these books are interesting ways to introduce the book to new readers. This is not a book that you would necessarily think of as being “suitable” for kids, and Peter Kuper, in his particular style makes the most of his 50 pages faithfully drawing the darkness and pain of an immigrant family coming to terms with the cruelty of poverty in the face of corruption and American capitalism at its most inhuman.
Then at moments, Kuper’s art is emotionally overwhelming in its own right.
Kristina Gehrmann, even though she isn’t aiming for new readers, draws sympathetic portraits of the family even as they face all their endless trials and humiliations. Her careful drawings bring details of Chicago painstakingly to life including recreations of newspapers adds on the title pages for each chapter. She honours Sinclair and finds the humanity at the heart of the story.
The friends are now third years. Time to go back to Sheffield–Ed makes a side trip to Australia, with his new girlfriend. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, start at Volume 1, and you will be hooked too.
This is a quieter book than most of Atkinson’s. It’s a spy story that slowly unveils deeper and deeper levels. The book begins and ends with brief chapters as Juliet Armstrong is dying. Then Atkinson moves, as she always can, deftly to sections of the story in 1940 and 1950. Atkinson can shift from scene to scene in the space of a sentence. In 1940, Juliet is hired as a “girl” to be in a secretarial role with MI5, where she has to transcribe the meetings of a cell of fascist sympathizing fifth-columnists organized by an MI5 agent. She is soon sent undercover to infiltrate the Right Club led by the formidable Mrs. Scaife. For much of the novel, it seems this is all Juliet has been up to. It is a very English novel of ordinary men and women drably functioning in a grey world. Juliet mixes with the upper-classes among her bosses in the service, among the fascists and among her fellow secretaries.
Without fanfare, but just quietly moving us on, Atkinson reveals that there is so much more going on for Juliet and for the war effort, and hints that nothing ever quite ends, just from time to time, one after another, someone drops out or dies.
I thought I was disappointed in this, but now it may not be Atkinson at her most exciting, but it is this author at the top of her game.