Kate Atkinson's most recent novels have seemed, on the surface
of things, like a radical departure for a Whitbread Award-winning
novelist whose previous works were noted for their use of magical
realism and their unusual family dynamics. With CASE HISTORIES,
however, the first book featuring detective Jackson Brodie,
Atkinson took her well-established skill at exploring characters
and relationships, and applied it to an entirely new genre --- the
mystery. Since then, with ONE GOOD TURN and now with WHEN WILL
THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, Atkinson continues to push the boundaries of
the mystery genre, writing intricate, suspenseful character studies
that are bound to appeal even to literary purists who would swear
they had never read a mystery novel in their lives.
These three books are loosely interconnected, focusing at least
in part on Brodie and Edinburgh police inspector Louise Monroe. In
ONE GOOD TURN, the sexual tension that defined Jackson and Louise's
interactions never came to fruition; in WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD
NEWS?, readers will be intrigued to discover that both main
characters, in the intervening months, have made very similar
choices in their personal lives, choices that will continue to
complicate their personal and professional relationships.
But, as with the previous titles in this series, the private
detective and the police inspector are, unusually, hardly the most
important characters in the novel. Instead, Atkinson introduces a
good dozen characters, each of whom carries his or her own tale of
love, loss and betrayal, and whose stories come together in
remarkable and, at times, surprising ways.
Central to the story is Joanna Hunter, now a successful
physician and new mother living in Edinburgh. As a child, however,
Joanna gained notoriety for being the only survivor of a brutal
triple murder that left her mother, older sister and baby brother
dead. The killer was sentenced to life in prison, but after 30
years he's now out on parole, and Joanna is haunted by fears that
the media --- and the assailant himself --- might find her and
destroy the new life she's built for herself.
Part of that new life includes Joanna's husband Neil, a somewhat
shady businessman with secrets of his own, and mother's helper
Reggie (short for Regina), a teenager studying for her A-levels and
adopting Joanna as a surrogate mother, since few people know that
Reggie's own mother died more than a year ago. Her older brother
Billy is up to no good, so when Joanna disappears, Reggie doesn't
know where to turn.
That is, until she encounters Louise Monroe, who is
investigating a suspicious fire at one of Neil's business
establishments, and Jackson Brodie, whom Reggie meets by chance
after he's been seriously injured in a brutal and bloody train
derailment. Each of these three have their own reasons for delving
into the mysteries that surround them.
Besides being passably engaging mysteries, Atkinson's latest
novels are utterly engrossing joint character studies. As she
develops each character independently, she also, increasingly,
shows them in relation to one another, developing layers of
interconnection that go beyond coincidence. Language also connects
the subplots in playful ways. The themes of the book, however, are
a good deal darker --- focusing on young women alone in the world,
on the loneliness of those who find themselves still alive when
everyone they love has died, on the difficulty of forming and
maintaining relationships in a fundamentally flawed world.
WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? offers sophisticated readers a
mystery that stretches the boundaries of the genre, opening up the
story to provide portraits of a community of sorts, united by
proximity and by loss.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 2, 2011