on 7 October 2012
I've had this book for about 8 years and every so often I pick it off the shelf and read it all over again (I've just finished it again for the sixth time). The story Effie tells of her time at Dundee University, her conversations with Nora, and her interactions with and observations of her fellow students are told in an interesting and quirky way by giving each situation its own font. This works very well; when Kevin gives his account of his novel 'The Chronicles of Edrakonia' you can almost hear his thick west-country accent ("..the Duke Thar-Vint on his trusty steed.."). The story flips between her time on the remote Scottish island with Nora, babysitting duties at the McCue household, the drudge of writing her own novel 'The Hand of Fate', her times "chez Bob" and the boring lectures where students read out their own attempts at writing. This style of writing takes a bit of getting used to but the story grows on you and gets better with time. I would recommend at least a second sitting with it.
Once you get to know the characters it is hilarious and by the end very fulfilling. The story is set mainly in Dundee in the midst of a cold, grey winter; knowing Dundee very well and the Scots dialect I connected vividly with her descriptions of the streets, the glib conversations and the constantly changing colours of the Tay ("it took on the hue of molten steel"). Having also been a university student who went through the mundane rounds of boring lectures and 'predicate logic' I really relate to this book (who doesn't remember a 'Bob' from their student days) however I could understand someone who doesn't have this background struggling with it.
Well done to Kate Atkinson for being brave enough to write in this unconventional but refreshing way, using her brilliant sense of humour, probably knowing that some might not 'get' it. I've read every subsequent book she's written and they just get better and better. She is by far the most talented and intelligently funny author I have read in my 47 years. I would also recommend in particular 'One Good Turn' and 'Started Early, Took my Dog'. Can't wait for the next one!
on 5 September 2014
I hadn't realised that this was an early book from Kate Atkinson. I began it expecting a truly cracking read. I very quickly found myself in a (auto)biography of student life in Dundee some decades ago. So far so good and then the characters began to appear with descriptions of them, their habits and background. The first few seemed a bit grotesque but beautifully described in Atkinson's style. However, more appeared and more and more. All were odd, weird, repulsive, in-comprehensible, damaged.... you add the adjectives. They all lived in disgusting premises, didn't do the work required of students and acted in totally baffling ways. Astounding co-incidences of action and appearance began to happen, strange strangers suddenly were inserted in the tale. And on and on.
Around now it dawned on me that there was some sort of literary joke happening. Descriptions of the protagonist's current life dropped in without warning, her mother (or possibly not her mother) kept commenting on the student's tale as it progressed, there was another story being written which, paragraphs of which dropped in again without any warning, tiny literary references turned up here and there.
I could see that this might round up to a clever, if baffling, denoument. So I kept going. Around a third of the way through I realised that I was avoiding picking up my Kindle to read on and when I did only getting through a few pages of continuing leaden humour before I left again. Sad, as Kate Atkinson's later work is so wonderfully good. I may finish the book one day but only for the sake of completeness rather than enjoyment.
on 14 March 2000
Nora and Effie Stuart-Murray are sitting on an island off the west coast of Scotland, telling each other stories. Effie's tale is of her recent life as a student at Dundee University, whilst Nora tells of Effie's murky family history, with the announcement that she is not, in fact, Effie's mother. The hyphenated 'Stuart' is the only clue left that Nora and Effie have royalty as ancestors.
However, you do begin to worry about this novel when Effie's audience, Nora, gets bored and decides to go to bed. If a fictional character has been diagnosed with ennui, then what chance have we of following this novel to its conclusion? We get to see the fascinating acts of feeding cats, the boiling of kettles in Effie's life story, but we do also get occasional glimpses of the invasion of Vietnam. Effie quotes large chunks of Archie McCue's abstract lecture, as if to prove how boring the man is, when one or two words would have sufficed. Archie's lecture appears to happen in real time, and it seems as though Atkinson is writing the antithesis of a crime novel, by having all her main suspects meet up in the beginning, rather than at the end. But Archie McCrue is no detective. Chick Petrie is, and so is Madame Astarti, the heroine of Effie's attempt at fiction. Practically everyone who is anyone turns up at McCrue's lecture, an unlikely scenario for an early morning lecture during a power cut in the strikes of 72.
Emotionally Weird takes a long time to get going. There's something wacky about all the characters, but none of them are truly amusing. In a recent interview in the Observer, Kate Atkinson commented that she found it very difficult to get going on this novel, and to achieve the right tone, and I'm afraid it shows in these early pages. Compared with Joanne Harris' Blackberry Wine, with which Emotionally Weird shares some themes, Atkinson's novel seems quite poor indeed, to begin within. This book hasn't really come close to universal praise in the press, despite a very enthusiastic piece in the Scotsman. I approached this book warily since a Star Trek fan is a very prominent character (Effie's boyfriend, 'Magic Bob'). Oh no, I thought, Atkinson's pitted all her wits against a very easy stereotype. My prejudice came from the fact that, like Bob, I'm also a fan of Cult TV (although not quite as drugged or sluggish as him).
At the beginning of the novel, Effie is trying to work out how she can leave Bob. But you've only got to look at her narrative to see how far she's been infected. A couple of Effie's similes come from Doctor Who (the obvious 'Dalek' and 'Tardis'), whilst her supporting cast have been given the names of minor, but significant characters from Star Trek: Christopher Pike, Janice Rand, Kevin Riley, and even Gary Seven turns up as the author of some obscure paper. Purists should note that the novel occurs during the broadcast of the Doctor Who adventure, The Curse of Peladon. Maybe Effie should get out more. Maybe I should get out more. Around about 50% of Effie's male acquaintances seem to be writing fantasy novels, boring the pants off everyone with varying degrees of success. However, Atkinson does present Magic Bob much as Russell T. Davies would: as sad, but lovable. As to what genre Kate Atkinson would like to work in, I would stab a guess at the crime novel. No doubt her style would be unique, but still far more competent than Effie's novels starring Madame Astarti.
My favourite character from the novel is Professor Cousins, who interrupts fatuous McCrue with the observation that all fiction could be tied down to the questions surrounding identity, citing Oedipus Rex as an example. You do get the feeling that Atkinson would tend to agree with the professor, whilst wondering when the scourging of eyes is finally going to arrive. But as with any novel with a phenomenally long cast list, you have to be patient, you have to wait for Emotionally Weird to wield its magic, to endure before the blockbuster ending arrives.
Kate Atkinson employs a variety of styles and fonts in this book which she claims to be about 'words' (as she said in her Observer interview). I've done much the same myself when I've been writing. The reasons why I used such techniques was that I was being defensive, placing the expected critics of my work into the text itself, as Atkinson does here, in the voice of Nora. No doubt Emotionally Weird means much to Atkinson, and she fears that it will not mean much to anyone else. Martha Sewell and her creative writing class ponder that old cliché, that everyone has a novel within them. Maybe the relevant question should be: does anyone have a third novel within them? After a shaky start, Emotionally Weird answers in the affirmative, with a resounding conclusion that does leave you wanting more.