Saturday, November 11, 2006

Review: One Good Turn is one good book

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson is an amazing book with a deceptively simple title. The plot has so many layers that a more apt title might have been Matryoshka, for those Russian dolls that nest inside one another and make an appearance in the story. One Good Turn is also like a rich chocolate dessert made with the best ingredients -- delicious, filling, satisfying and leaving you planning the next time you can have some.

Jackson Brodie is not your ordinary English crime novel series protagonist. Divorced, middle-aged, a little grumpy but still in good shape, he has achieved his dream of retiring to France. An ex-cop-cum-ex-private detective, he's got a house in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and he has Julia, his actress girlfriend from Cambridge whom he loves, so life should be good. That it's not does not escape Jackson notice, but the notion is just dawning on him. As the book opens he has accompanied Julia to the Edinburgh Festival, where she will be appearing in an avant-garde play, and he promptly witnesses an incident of road rage. One man is about to beat another to death after a minor traffic accident when a bystander intervenes, which is the good turn of the title and kicks off all the action.

Told alternately through the point of view of the major protagonists -- a writer of formula crime novels, a has-been comedian, a female detective, the wife of a crooked real estate developer, and Jackson -- the narrative bobs and weaves and connects many dots over the course of the three days covered by the tale. "There are no coincidences, only explanations waiting to happen," Jackson says, and in One Good Turn, he is right. Atkinson reveals elements slowly. Associations showing themselves piece by piece, as if a covering page was were being slowly drawn back from a picture, the subject of which is not clear until the whole image is laid bare. As a mystery, this book is excellent.

What makes it really stand out, however, is the superb writing and shrewd observations of human nature. In lucid and potent prose, the reader is treated to all kinds of memories and thought excursions that are so prevalent in the heads of real people. Each character is 100% believable, Jackson Brodie first among them. While much of his background was revealed in Case Histories, the first of Atkinson's novels focusing on Brodie, the exposition surrounding him here both deepens his character and stands fine by itself for anyone who did not read the first book.

The novel is quite funny at times, and I'm sure I would have found it even more amusing if I were English; I could tell there were references I just didn't get. Not content to spin a mystery and throw in some great lines, Atkinson is also philosophical. Her characters contemplate religion but are not religious, struggle with their identities, and are taken with the idea of a fresh start in life. In the case of Mr. Brodie, starting over has lost its luster, and as the book closes, the reader is left with the impression that it's his old life he hears calling.

We don't get to know, however, what Jackson will do at the end of the week. His three-day adventure is over, but he is less certain about his life than there was at the beginning of the novel. This is another strength of Ms. Atkinson's -- the mystery is solved, but the characters lives are not resolved, and you get the feeling she's just gotten rolling.

Kate Atkinson is known as a literary mystery writing for good reason; One Good Turn is not a book one can just breeze through. The threads of the narrative intertwine, but not in a tight weave, and one must pay attention to catch the six-degrees-of-separation connections. It is well worth the effort, however. So sit down, get comfortable, and be prepared to be entertained for a good long time.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

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