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.