Feb 3, 2011

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories tells the story of three crimes that took place in or around Cambridge between the 1970’s and the 1990’s, and of how they all come to the attention of private investigator Jackson Brodie. In the first one, Olivia, the youngest and most beloved daughter of Rosemary and Victor, goes missing one summer night when sleeping outside in a tent with her sister Amelia. Almost twenty years later, a lawyer named Theo tragically loses his eighteen-year-old daughter Laura. This happens the summer when she is temporarily working at his law firm before leaving for Scotland to begin a degree in Marine Biology. And again in the 1970’s, eighteen-year-old Michelle has to deal with an unhappy marriage, post-partum depression, and the overwhelming feeling of being trapped – until one day she cannot cope anymore. Then there’s Jackson Brodie himself, who has a painful story involving his sister in his past. As you can imagine, this makes all these other tragedies hit very close to home indeed.

It might tell you something if I say that I read the whole of Case Histories in about twenty-four hours during the holiday season and with early January grad school deadlines looming over me. (I might have read it a little too fast, seeing that I didn’t mark any passages to share even though I liked Atkinson’s writing a lot – oops.) That’s how good it is, and how difficult to put down.

The tone of Case Histories put me a little in mind of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which is one of my absolute favourite novels. It was something about the lyrical writing combined with the portrayal of suburban misery and lives cut too short. Also, I should let you know that I was in tears by the second case history. I will be the first to admit that it’s not exactly rare for a book to make me cry, but lest you get the wrong impression, this is not a soppy book. What got to me so much was the fact that Kate Atkinson makes the humanity of these characters and the reality of their grief so absolutely inescapable.

Case Histories is my favourite kind of mystery: the writing and the characterisation are top-notch, and the plot isn’t so much concerned with whodunit as it is with… whatitfeltlikeforeveryoneinvolved. The mysteries themselves are good ones, and there’s plenty of tension and suspense and all that. But this is very much a character-oriented novel, so the way the pieces of the puzzle fall together can’t be separated from the characters’ motivations and fears, or the psychological impact certain events have on their lives.

I loved the way all these stories were connected, if not directly at least thematically. I loved the emphasis on human tragedies of a kind that is often silenced or overlooked. And I loved the themes Case Histories deals with: sexual abuse, post-partum depression, unhappy marriages, violence against women, cycles of abuse, etc. None of them are thrown in for dramatic effect, but instead are introduced because Atkinson seems genuinely interested in inviting readers to think about these things; about how they affect real human beings and how they’re perceived and constructed by society at large.

I really liked, for example, Atkinson’s analysis of the process of victimisation; of how women who suffer through different sort of crimes are perceived and portrayed differently. Jackson Brodie says at one point that people usually prefer young women who are victims of sexual violence to be holy and “pure” – anything less, and the suggestion that they might have had it coming inevitably rears its ugly head. This theme is introduced in the novel through the contrast between the real, very human Laura, who we only get to see directly towards the end; and Laura as mediated by other people’s perceptions – the immortalised victim, forever virginal and pure. Sexual experience or the lack thereof shouldn’t make the least difference in how tragic the death of an eighteen-year-old is perceived to be, but unfortunately a lot of the time that’s not how the world seems to work.

Case Histories is a thoughtful and beautifully written mystery novel, and one with feminist themes to boot. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read Kate Atkinson again.

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34 comments:

joanna said...

I believe this is sitting on my shelf and I've been curious about Kate Atkinson. It seems that she touches on a lot of my favorite themes, so I'll have to take it off that shelf!

christina said...

This book sounds familiar, but I can't understand why. Anyways, I love the setting, so for that alone, I'm adding it to my list!

Debi said...

This book is already on my wish list, though I didn't know a lot about it. It has now moved to the top. Even if I hadn't loved everything you had to say up that point, that penultimate paragraph of your review would have sold me completely.

JoAnn said...

Another excellent review, Ana! I can't wait to read Case Histories. Behind the Scenes at the Museum was very good and I've been meaning to read more by Atkinson for some time.

Steph said...

Have you read any of Atkinson's non-mystery fiction? I actually prefer it to her Jackson Brodie series (I realize I am in the minority in not really caring for these books, but them's the breaks), and I think you'd love her other fiction a lot, too. She is so wildly creative and I just love her writing so much!

Vivienne said...

This is one of those authors where I seem to have lots of her books and yet I haven't read any of them. I was always put off by the title of this book, however, it will definitely go back on my list.

Zibilee said...

I have only read one Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum) and it was a very different kind of read than the one you examined here. I do have this book on my shelf, and after hearing what you have to say about it, I think it's one that I need to check out soon. Thanks for the eloquent review, Ana!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I need to read this also. I really like Kate Atkinson, and I love character-oriented mysteries!

Elisabeth said...

Looks amazing & I'm completely sold. The Virgin Suicides is also one I've wanted to read for a while, so +2 for this blog post! Thanks!

Alexandra said...

I’ve only read her one book by Atkinson, “Scenes at the Museum” and it was so badly translated that it put me off her completely. However, the sheer enthusiasm of most of the book blogshpere over her writing has me de me re-think my approach. Is this a good book to “start”?

Staci said...

I have one of her books on my shelves..not sure which one but now I'm going upstairs to see and to put this on my pile of books to read in Feb!

Kay said...

What a lovely review. I enjoyed it very much and I remember reading one of Atkinson's books several years ago, BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM. I loved it. Since I am such a fan of character driven mysteries, I must start this series. Thanks for the push, Ana!

Bina said...

I loved this book too, mostly for all the reasons you mentioned :) Now I can't wait to give her other works another try.

Oh, and I just reviewed the second Brodie book!

bermudaonion said...

I adore a well written mystery and have had Atkinson on my radar for a while. This sounds like a book I could get lost in.

ds said...

I love Kate Atkinson; this was a great read--I completely understand why you couldn't take notes ;)
Wonderful review--I need to find the next Brodie book (it's out there, just don't know the title).
Thank you!

Brenna said...

This is the first I've heard about Kate Atkinson. I love that you are consistently introducing me to new authors, Nymeth :)

Trisha said...

I love the idea of the focus being on the people rather than the plot. I've always been impressed that you mark passages so well; most of the time, when I'm reading something I truly adore, I'll completely forget to take notes at all.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I read this book way before blogging, but even then, in my raw state of reading "real" literature, I knew this one was a keeper. I loved it. So much emotion going on there. Your description of this novel as not necessarily about whodunit but more about the characters and how they felt when the crimes occured is a perfect way to describe "Crooked Letter Crooked Letter" which I just finished. You should check that one out.

Amy said...

Ooohhh this sounds really interesting, and the last bit you talk about - the process of victimization and all that - makes me want to pick it up even more!!

Shelley said...

A lot of pain there.

zeteticat said...

I've been meaning to read this for a while - I'm glad to know my instinct was right. I know nothing of Atkinson but this book (still) sounds right up my alley. AND it explore's how women experience victimization? How has it taken me so long to pick this up? Perhaps this is the novel to my non-fiction escapades...

Darlene said...

I have wanted to read this one for a while. I'm not sure why I haven't yet. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it so much.

Andi said...

I downloaded the e-book a while ago (because it was cheap!), so I'm super-glad to see that you loved it!

Teresa said...

Oh hooray, hooray! I knew you'd love this--once again we are mystery twins! Although I love Jackson Brodie, I agree with Steph that her other books are even better. She's without a doubt the most exciting author I discovered last year.

Clare said...

…I think it's time to read Kate Atkinson. The Eugenides comparison sealed it for me.

Tabitha said...

I really enjoyed the Kate Atkinson as well, only read it a few weeks ago. Off to find myself a copy of The Virgin Suicides now - thanks for that. :-) Tabitha in really hot Sydney.

Chris said...

Well this sounds like everything that I love in a book combined together. Not that I ENJOY reading about horrible events :p But I think they're important to talk about...and your comparison to The Virgin Suicides just topped it off for me..off to request!

Caroline said...

I loved this book so much. It was my favourite read in 2008 I guess. For weird reasons I never picked up anything else by her although I swore I want to start reading everything.

Kailana said...

The comparison to The Virgin Suicides changed this from a book I wasn't really sure about to a book I am now curious about!

Amy said...

I love character driven novels and while I'm not a huge fan of mysteries, this sounds like a book I'd enjoy.

Nymeth said...

I hope I can get around to replying to comments properly later, but just in case life conspires against it, I wanted to say thanks for the recommendations! This was my very first Atkinson so it's good to have an idea of where I could go next.

Iliana said...

It's been so long since I've read this book that I can barely remember anything of it. For some reason or another I never got to the second book, don't know how many others she has with the same character, but one day I'd definitely like to follow up on it.

Ladytink_534 said...

I vaguely remember reading this when it first came out but I don't remember enjoying it very much. Of course I was only 18 at the time and much more into supernatural fiction...

Kathleen said...

Thoughtfully and beautifully written? This is going on my list!