- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006


By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 432 pages


Each of the first five chapters of “One Good Turn” introduces a new character, none of whom know each other at this early stage of Kate Atkinson’s fictional frolic among the denizens of Edinburgh and its annual arts festival. More folks appear in later chapters. Indeed, this densely populated novel almost — but not quite — needs one of those handy lists of dramatis personae that guide the reader through the crowded openings of the Russian classics.

As it is, questions about who’s who set in early with the arrival in Edinburgh of Paul Bradley, “a nicely forgettable name” for someone who most often goes by Ray. Simple but evocative: “Ray of light. Ray of sunshine. Ray of darkness. Ray of night. He liked slipping between identities.” So do many others in a novel that questions how people come by their identities; whether their roles in life correspond to their “real” selves. The answer to this question is generally “No.” But can things be changed?

Take Gloria Hatter, for example. Once a bright young university student, she followed Graham Hatter out of a bar and found herself married to a lout who has become a multimillionaire fraudster on a grand scale. Jackson Brodie has been a policeman, then a private detective, but after inheriting two million pounds he retired to a leisured life in France. He still feels like a policeman, however.

Martin Canning also has lots of money and an enviable house. But Martin, author of super-successful crime novels, longs for a sweet, ‘50s-style wife who would welcome him home with an adoring gaze and supper on the table. He also longs for people to call him “Marty.” They don’t because he just doesn’t seem be a Marty, though like Paul Bradley, he goes by another name: Alex Blake, a pen name his publicist invented. Then there’s Tatiana. She trained as a trapeze artist in her native Russia, then worked in a bank, but is now a call girl called Jojo.

“There was no reason why she should be who she said she was. No reason why anybody should be who they said they were,” reflects Gloria when she meets Tatiana. Her own name is authentic, but problematic. “Gloria presumed her life would be quite different — that glorious things would happen to her (as her name implied), that she would be illuminated within and without and her path would scorch like a comet’s. This did not happen!”

Circumstances ranging from ill-considered choices to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have shaped and twisted the outward identities that encrust Gloria, Martin, Jackson and so many of the other characters that roam through “One Good Turn.” These identities — real, feigned or imposed — are socially constructed rather than existential or psychological. Each trudges through life with a personal “museum” of memory — burdens that recall those in Ms. Atkinson’s first novel “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” which explores the ragbag of history and remembrance we tote in our heads.

But the past is not an entirely rigid mold — at least not in fictional worlds controlled by Ms. Atkinson. She knits her characters’ existences into a multi-patterned mess, but then she unravels them, leaving everybody pretty much straightened out and ready to reclaim the selves that crumpled when circumstance hijacked their lives.

She begins briskly with a minor car accident that provokes such a volcano of road rage that the soi-disant Paul Bradley ends up in hospital with Martin, who defended him with a laptop-laden backpack, at his bedside. Gloria is there, too, because Graham has had a heart attack while under the ministrations of Jojo/Tatiana.

Jackson Brodie, a witness, is soon tangled in a second crime. He finds the drowned body of a young woman. All his policemanly instincts come to the fore as he tries to pull her out of the water. But the tide sweeps her away. Having been involved in two crimes in one day, Jackson now looks like a mighty suspicious character. Yet a third crime occurs when a guest in Martin’s house is found dead. Eventually, Martin, apparently the mildest of men, is pulled into the vortex of suspicion, too.

With fraud investigators closing in on Graham Hatter, Gloria is also of interest to the police. Stuck for so long in her less-than-glorious life she feels that “Life was a series of rooms that she walked into when everyone just left.” But in the dramatic ending, she makes it clear that she has had enough.

Readers might well give three cheers for her. And another three for Jackson Brodie, the decent ex-cop who debuted in Ms. Atkinson’s earlier novel “Case Histories.” The two of them stand at the heart of the moral universe of “One Good Turn”: they are kind but not sentimental, patient but not complete saps. The potential happiness gleaming at the end of the tunnels they have been stuck in suggests that for them at least, there is renewal — a favorite and essentially comic theme that threads through Ms. Atkinson’s work.

There’s melancholy too, evoked not only by the number of dead bodies, but more powerfully by Ms. Atkinson’s portrayal of Edinburgh as a city that is a mix of crags and ravines, ancient and modern, artists and the “middle-class wankers” who flit about the festival. “Dualism, the Edinburgh disease. Jekyll and Hyde, dark and light, hill and valley, New Town, Old Town, Catholics and Protestants,” she writes in a commentary that can be applies to life as it appears in her latest pages. “A game of two halves. An eternal Manichean dichotomy.”

As ever, Ms. Atkinson is a mistress of humorous exchanges and asides. She has, too, the tight control of scene that makes them all vivid, and many hilariously farcical. She comments smartly and sensibly; she creates characters that are endlessly varied, eliciting sympathy for some and loathing for others.

Readers who have enjoyed her previous four novels will fall happily into this one — though those who have not read “Case Histories,” in which Jackson Brodie first appeared, will regret the frequent inadequately explained references to that first venture into crime fiction. In this second effort in this genre, Kate Atkinson shows the continuing good form that has made her one of the best of British novelists.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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