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“Everywhere you looked there was unfinished business and unanswered questions. He had always imagined that when you died there was a last moment when everything was cleared up for you—the business finished, the questions answered, the lost things found—and you thought, ‘Oh, right, I understand, and then you were free to go into the darkness of the light. But it had never happened when he died (briefly, he heard Dr. Foster say), so perhaps it never would. Everything would remain a true mystery.”

Involving the reader from the suspenseful opening pages, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel is not a traditional mystery. Instead, it is a novel which grows out of the terrible traumas that children and young people must endure when people they love die violently. So marked are they by their sudden tragedies, that they never really escape their pasts, and may spend the rest of their lives wondering “when will there be good news.”

Five separate plot lines evolve and occasionally overlap here, and in each of these plots the main characters are all needy people hiding an inner loneliness from which they would like to escape. Joanna Mason is only six years old when her father abandons the family in rural Devon and returns to London, but this trauma is just a prelude to the disaster which follows soon after, the murder of her mother, eight-year-old sister, and her baby brother in a slashing attack while they are walking. Joanna, heeding her mother’s screams to run, escapes into a nearby wheat field from which she is later rescued. Thirty years later, Joanna Mason Hunter is a physician living in Edinburgh, the happily married mother of a one-year-old whom she adores, a woman who appears to have it all. She seems to have put her past to rest, and no one connects her to the earlier murders in Devon. Unfortunately, the murderer of her family is about to be released from jail.

Joanna’s “mother’s help” is Reggie Chase, a sixteen-year-old who is an orphan fending for herself in a rundown apartment that she shares on occasion with her delinquent brother, whose illegal activities create constant friction. Reggie adores taking care of Joanna’s baby, helping around the house, and being surrounded with the kind of love Joanna expresses so easily, and she would love to live with Joanna, who has no idea that the “mother” Reggie describes as vibrantly alive, does not, in fact, exist.

Jackson Brodie, a former police detective who has been working “in security” in recent years, and who has been a lead character in Atkinson’s earlier novels–Case Histories and One Good Turn–is now married for the third time—to a curator at the British Museum—and estranged from his twelve-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He is also prohibited from seeing the two-year-old he believes to be his son with his former girlfriend, who has now married. While working on a case in England, he takes the wrong train and ends up in Edinburgh, where he is terribly injured in a train crash near the house where Reggie Chase is staying, and there their lives begin to connect.

Atkinson’s narrative speeds along, enhanced by her skillful pacing as she introduces new elements and surprises to her myriad plot lines, and she is especially adept at creating understanding and empathy for her characters, each of whom is individualized. By recreating the early lives of each of them through flashbacks, and comparing and contrasting those past lives with their present lives, the reader comes to “know” the characters, and despite the huge cast, will have little trouble keeping them all straight. The characters, though superficially quite different from each other, are connected thematically by their neediness and by their yearning for loving relationships. Eventually, they are also all connected through the plot’s complications and mysteries. Ironies abound, and mistaken identities create some bizarre and sometimes darkly humorous scenes.

As one might expect from the large number of characters and plot lines, coincidence plays an important role in resolving the novel in dramatic fashion, and though no one will believe that these twists and turns are truly realistic, they are great fun and completely consistent with the ebullient story-telling that Atkinson has made her signature. After all, as Atkinson says, “Coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.” As the novel winds down and the characters muse about their fates, Atkinson cleverly leaves a few issues open, giving her a wedge into follow-up novels involving Jackson Brodie and one or more other characters.  (On my Favorites List for 2008)

Notes: The author’s photo appears on her Amazon author page:  http://www.amazon.com

Jackson Brodie has now appeared in three Atkinson novels, and it has recently been announced that a new TV series will begin in England with Jason Isaacca playing the role of Jackson Brodie.  See his photo above and a brief story here:  http://eurocrime.blogspot.com

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