Review: One Good Turn. By Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is the first author on my list of reviews, not just because her surname ranks her high in the alphabetical heap. As it happens, I do plan to look at Benjamin Black and Linwood Barclay at some point. No, Kate is there because she features in my top ten list of writers of all time. A serious accolade let me tell you. Indeed, Ms Atkinson is well used to being celebrated. She did, after all win the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995 for her debut novel; Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Well-deserved too – one up for the girls – as the press at the time were only too happy to muse upon.

However laudable though much of Atkinson’s work is, and she has an enviable list of well written, insightful and absorbing novels to her name, I will be looking here at one of her lesser credited works. It is however, no less popular or entertaining for that.
I have to admit that for me, it’s all about Jackson Brody. Oh, Joy – I think my personal twitter account still counts him as a follower. How absurd to be elated by this. Of course, Ms Atkinson has long moved on. There have been brilliant books since, met with rave and critical reviews – but either way, no-one questions the writing talent or the publishing machine that keeps coming up with absorbing tales. Problem is of course, there hasn’t been a whisper of Jackson, not since ‘Started Early, Took My Dog.’
It was all about Jackson – that crinkly, crotchedy, ex-service man with a heart, long before his personae was taken over by serious heartthrob Jason Isaacs. Some have suggested that Brody is actually a woman in a man’s body. Win-win, I say! A fan of the Woman’s Hour and still able to rescue a damsel in distress – he is almost perfect.
Apart from Julia. Yes, Julia is still here, hasn’t left since Case Histories and the bad news is, she’s sticking around until the end. You have to love her though, even if she makes us want to pull our hair out and scorch our eyeballs. She is comical, earnest in her own way and believably off beat.
Did I mention that the Characters are really well drawn? You get the picture.
The Brody Novels – there are four in total, ranged across a number of years and two cities. They span the turbulent love life of Jackson, his family – what’s left of it, quite a few fist fights and of course a couple of murders for good measure. If you do decide to read them, start at the beginning, sit back and enjoy.
One Good Turn is the first of the novels set in Edinburgh. Atkinson’s Edinburgh is a different city to the one we are used to reading about in Rankin, Mc Call Smith and Walsh. This is Edinburgh, bursting with sounds, with laughter and tourists, bustling excitedly – the rain is never far away, but it feels a warm place. It is a place of family homes, long marriages and carnival revellers. However, above all of this modern city, the Castle looms large and perhaps it sees behind the facades far better than the characters themselves do at first. The action begins with a bang – or rather a crash. One car into another. An unfortunate incident witnessed by a disparate group who have little or nothing in common to begin with it seems. As the story weaves however, we find that lives are connected in small and apparently inconsequential ways and we learn that sometimes the ostensibly insignificant things in life can at the end make all the difference.
Atkinson used the motif of Russian Dolls throughout the novel and there is a sense of unpeeling of skins for each of the characters. The tour de force of this novel in many ways has as much to do with the characters coming to terms with who they have become as much as the reader learning the answers to the various puzzles thrown up in each of the lives examined.
Perhaps Jackson is not the greatest detective in the world, his cases are solved as much through bloody noses and the serendipitous trail of events and disasters that fall across his path. The story is none the worse for that and perhaps stronger, because these are not your average whodunit runarounds. The characters here are people, full, rounded, happy and sometimes sad, often lonely – but never so maudlin that the reader is pulled down with them. We are rooting for Gloria, from the beginning, what woman does not sometimes feel like they could do with the comfort of a Playtex Doreen and a night watching the local wildlife cup of tea in hand? We applaud her when she sets out to right the wrongs of her selfish and greedy husband Graham. How unfortunate that he had a heart attack, how pleased we are when he is no longer a complication!
The plot; a thickly weaved swallows nest of murder, greed, secrets and dishonesty is built from the twigs of interconnected stories. The brilliance of this novel and all of Atkinson’s best, is that the reader is convinced from the word go that this is a story, written by an everywoman for the ordinary everyman. Wrong. This is a skilled artist, casting wide strokes across a backdrop while she surreptitiously lures you deeper into some of the best fiction of the last decade. Moreover, all the while, she has you convinced that this is easier than cottage pie.
And for the genre fans? Don’t worry, all the puzzle pieces fall exactly as they should for a satisfactory denouement, with just a little vengeance added so you close this book like the cat that got the cream!