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This review is from: Emotionally Weird (Hardcover)
In her latest book Kate Atkinson's teases the reader, backtracking and rewriting the plot, killing and resurrecting characters, indulging in word games and supplying her own ongoing critique. When a character says: 'this is absolute, gratuitous nonsense', Effie, the narrator, adds sententiously: 'And so it was.' Characters pick their own adverbs; cliche's come to life (a dog eats an essay); turns of phrase are coldly examined: 'Keep an eye out... Oh, what a horrible idea', and a doorbell cannot ring suddenly without raising the question 'how else?'
While Effie, a student at the University of Dundee, recounts her painfully recognisable tale of student life circa 1972, her mother Nora (who isn't her mother) recounts the tale of Effie's true provenance. The pair are sequestered on a tiny Scottish island, so isolated that they refer to a bigger island nearby as the mainland.Their tales are distinguished by different typefaces, a necessary device as Nora's comments often interrupt Effie's tale, contributing to the ongoing critique. In a creative writing class Effie (an omnipotent narrator) allows a student to read from his fantasy epic (printed in a Gothic font). Nora tells her to stop him as she is wasting words. Effie replies: 'There isn't a finite stock of them'. Nora asks: 'How do you know? You might suddenly just run out and then you won't be able to finish the - '
Among other typefaces - and stories - that make guest appearances are Effie's own contribution to the creative writing class (a seaside-based detective novel), a lecturer's Kafkaesque work and his wife's Mills and Boon prose. Effie's dozy boyfriend throws in the plots of Star Trek and Dr Who. The lecturer's novel is as indecipherable as the academic language he uses in his stifling tutorials, where nonetheless a crucial point is raised: 'second-order verisimilitude won't suffice any more when trying to form a transcendentally coherent view of the world.' Atkinson fans who were impressed by the 'second-order verisimilitude' of 'Behind the Scenes in the Museum' might lose patience with this book, though to my mind she has really taken off. Her linguistic and comic flair rise to greater heights in this Reductio ad Absurdum (an expression she uses as a chapter title).
For all the fun she has with words and typography (including a half-page black square to indicate where Effie closes her eyes), Kate Atkinson has not eschewed the rules of the conventional novel entirely. She asks in a chapter heading near the end 'Is Achieving a Transcendentally Coherent View of the World Still a Good Thing?' This does seem to be what she is at. The novel raises similar themes (of family and belonging) to her ealier works. Despite flights of magic realism, there is plenty of mundane realism - ice-gems and Number 6, which, one old lady says, she only smokes for the coupons. When Salt and Vinegar crisps are mentioned I even found myself worrying whether that flavour existed in 1972.
Maybe the biggest surprise in this overtly experimental novel is the way the ends are tied up so neatly and Kate Atkinson delivers, as if despite herself, a carefully constructed story.