“[Jackson Brodie] 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.”
Not a traditional mystery, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel grows instead 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 spend the rest of their lives wondering “when will there be good news.” Five separate plot lines evolve and begin to 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. In the first plot, Joanna Mason Hunter is a physician living in Edinburgh, the happily married mother of a one-year-old, a woman who appears to have it all, but thirty years ago, she escaped a slashing attack which murdered her mother, sister, and baby brother. Though she seems to have put her past to rest, 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. Her mother has died traumatically over a year ago.
Jackson Brodie, a former police detective who has been working “in security” in recent years, and who has been a lead character in 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 nearly dies in a train crash near the house where Reggie Chase is staying. There, their lives begin to connect.
Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, from England, has come to Edinburgh to meet Joanna, wanting to warn her that the killer of her family has been released. Louise, now married, is a former girl friend of Jackson Brodie, and she is still in the Edinburgh area when she learns from Neil Hunter, Joanna’s husband, that Joanna and baby Gabriel have suddenly gone to see her elderly aunt in England.
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. 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.
Note: The author’s photo appears on her Amazon.com Author Page.