Sunday, August 12, 2007

Case Histories (thoughts)

Before I start, what do y'all think about the redecorating? Hopefully there's a picture in the banner, which was the inspiration for the new colour scheme. I enjoyed the old one, but I wanted to play around with the code a little (once upon a time, I designed websites-since then, CSS has taken over the scene) just to see if I could do it. Eventually, I'd like to have a more personalised feel to the blog. On to the book!

I can't remember where I first heard about Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. I had originally chosen it as part of my Summer Mystery Challenge, but then I realised that Kate Atkinson was the author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which I'd read years ago and really like. Since this challenge was only for new authors, Atkinson got pushed back. Recently, I decided to include it on my still-hazy Short Story Challenge. So, I read it; however, now I realise that it doesn't really count for a short story challenge. In the end, the book is good enough to read with a challenge incentive!

Atkinson's prose is breathtaking. She has an uncanny accuracy in producing the internal monologue of people, to make all her characters seem quite realistic. Her plotting is masterful as well; I ended up staying up way too late in order to get to the end! What more do you need in a book than a compelling plot and fascinating characters?

Well, how about poignancy? The way that Atkinson handles the three murders, makes us realise that human lives were lost for so a lesser author, it would be cliche. In an Atkinson novel, it makes you value life.

There are two techniques of Atkinson's that I find particularly impressive. The first is the way that she sandwiches a gut blow of emotion in between the banal, so it comes up on nowhere at the reader. Take the following example:
Amelia buttered the toast and laid it on plates. Julia tipped the beans on top. Amelia had begun to enjoy sharing domestic tasks with Julia, basic though they were. She'd lived on her own since her second year at university, that was a long time, more than two decades. Solitary life hadn't been a choice, no one had ever wanted to live with her. She mustn't get used to being with Julia. She mustn't get used to waking up in a house where someone knew her, inside out. (81)

She does this throughout the book; she also manages to couch the worst emotions in straight-forward terms. Atkinson doesn't rely on similes or metaphors; she tends to prefer the plain truth, which makes it all the more powerful.

I also love the way that Atkinson uses negative imagery. At least, that's my term for it. It's where a writer creates an image in the reader's head, but only because it's not there. It's easier to just show you what I mean:
And it was just a bedroom, an untidy bedroom that a girl was never going to enter again, never fling down her bag on the floor and kick off her shoes, never lie on the bed and read a book or listen to her stereo, never sleep the restless, innocent sleep of the living. (115)

As you're reading it, you're obviously imagining a girl coming in, kicking off her shoes, doing all of those things. But by using the word never, when the reader gets to the end, the sense of loss is almost greater, since she's imagined everything first. At the beginning of the novel, Atkinson does this in an absolutely stunning passage; unfortunately, if I quote it, it'll be a plot spoiler. But at several places during the plot, she uses this technique to invoke loss. I find it very effective.

I realise that I've been gushing on about the book, but haven't mentioned what it's about! In brief, the first three chapters introduce three different murder cases, each set some years in the past. Then, on page 45, the reader finds herself in the present day, with a private detective. The detective ends up investigating each of the three cases. Throughout this middle section of the book, Atkinson often changes points of view, flitting from character to character. She manages the large cast, with several different stories and settings, splendidly; I never felt confused or lost. Finally, the book ends with seven chapters: the first six interchange a chapter from the point of view of a survivor of the murder case with a chapter explaining what actually happened in each one. Then, the last (very short) chapter is from the investigator's point of view. Laid out, the book may seem overly complicated, but really Atkinson uses the complexities to explore all of her themes.

I'd recommend this book to everyone-it's an intensely satisfying read.

Favourite Passages

Laura, who had brown eyes and pale skin and who liked Diet Pepsi and salt and vinegar crips, who was as smart as a whip, who made scrambled eggs for him on Sunday mornings, Laura, who was still a virgin (he knew because she told him, to his embarassment), which made him feel immensely relieved even though he knew she couldn't stay one forever, Laura, who kept a tank of saltwater tropical fish in her bedroom, whose favorite color was blue, whose favorite flower was the snowdrop, and who liked Radiohead and Nirvana and hated Mr. Blobby and had seen
Dirty Dancing ten times. Laura, whom Theo loved with a strength that was like a cataclysm, a disaster. (27)

She should have studied science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on. (42)

He would have been eleven years old. Had it been hot? He had no idea. He couldn't remember eleven. The important thing about it was that it wasn't twelve. All the years before he was twelve shone with an unblemished and immaculate light. After twelve it was dark. (64)

The best thing she'd seen her in was a pantomime in Bristol, a generic kind of piece, probably
Cinderella, where Julie had been cast as a dog-a black poodle with a lion cut and a French accent. Julia's shape, short and busty, had somehow been perfectly suited to the costume and she had caught a certain kind of Parisian arrogance that the audience loved. She hadn't needed a wig-her own untamed hair had been piled in a topknow with a bow in it. Amelia had never thought of Julia as a poodle before then-she always imagined her as a Jack Russell. It seemed suddenly very sad to Amelia that the best role of Julia's career was a dog. And that she didn't need a wig to play a poodle. (73)

God spoke to Sylvia on a regular basis but she was always coy about the content of these conversations, just smiling her holy smile (enigmatic and infuriating). Anyone would think God was an intimate acquaintance, someone with whom Sylvia discussed existential philosophy over bottles of cheap wine in the snug of a quaint riverside pub. (78)

There had been times when the grief had been so bad that he had thought about digging her up, exhuming her poor rotting body, just so he could cradle her one last time, reassure her that he was still here, still thinking about her, even if no one else was. (89)

Amelia didn't want to be this prudish. She felt like someone who'd lost her way and ended up in the wrong generation. She would have been much more suited to a period with structure and rank and rules, where a button undone on a glove signaled licentiousness. She could have managed quite well living within those kinds of strictures. She had read too much James and Wharton. No one in Edith Wharton's world really wanted to be there but Amelia would have gotten along fine inside an Edith Wharton novel. (130)

A lot of people thought Theo spoiled his girls, but how could you spoil a child-by neglect, yes, but not by love. You had to give them all the love you could, even though giving that much love could cause you pain and anguish and horror and, in the end, love could destroy you. Because they left, they went to university and husbands, they went to Canada and they went to the grave. (138)


Matt said...

I've got this one on the shelf so I skimmed much of your review (I'm always afraid of spoilers!). But I did see your summing up sentence and was happy to see your recommendation. Someday I'll get to it.

Sarah said...

Thanks for writing such a thorough and glowing review. I mooched this a while back, so should read it soon.

As for the blog changes, I think it looks good. I'm in a similar boat re html/css- I learned basic html from playing Neopets as a kid, but it's all fairly obsolete now.

Gentle Reader said...

I've read this and I really liked, it, too. I also loved Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But for some reason I can't get myself to start One Good Turn--it's another crime/mystery story, but I'm sure told in Atkinson's smart way. Thanks for the review!

Gentle Reader said...

p.s. I do love the blog redecorating--love the colors and the header picture. Very nice!

Booklogged said...

Very pleasing blog design. You've still got it in you! I've tried to learn CSS since I've started blogging. It's all self-taught and I haven't succeeded in designing a whole blog yet, but I am able to change elements.

As beautiful as the blog is your review. Wow, I wish I could write like that. And analyze a book so well. You could get a job doing this. Instead of science, I should have majored in English. All I can add to my reviews is if I enjoyed them or not. Your review has convinced me to try Kate Atkinson. Thank-you.

Tara said...

I really, really enjoyed this as well. My bookclub is reading it in November -at my suggestion - and I'm really looking forward to the re-read. Your review brought parts of the book I had forgotten back to me.

Heather said...

I like the new color scheme. I should note, though, that the color of the sub-heading in the top bar is so similar to some of the colors in the pic under it that I can't read it any more. :(

Eva said...

Matt, there weren't any spoilers, but I understand your concern. I do the same thing when I read blogs!

Sarah, wouldn't it be great if technology never changed? lol-glad that you like the design and the review!

Genrle Reader, I'm almost afraid to read another Atkinson right now-I don't see how it could live up to this one. So, I understand that.

Booklogged, than you for the sweet words! I majored in international relations and modern languages, so school didn't really help me. However, the book How Novels Worked helped me a lot in my approach to reading.

Tara, what a good suggestion for your book club! I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. :)

Heather, now that I look, I realise you're right. I'll try to fix that this week!

danielle said...

I really enjoyed this too. I have been waiting ages for a library copy of her new one. I wonder if it is as good??

Eva said...

Danielle, I don't know if it's as good-I hope so, but I'm afraid to find out!