Monday, January 14, 2008

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

I picked this one up at a "Buy 1 Get 2nd Half Price" sale. I read her book "Case Histories" quite a while ago. So long ago, in fact, that I can't remember much about it, other than it was a good read. This one had gotten some good reviews as well, so I figured it was worth a shot.

It was. The novel takes place over three days in Edinburgh, during the Fringe Festival--a period when hundreds of tourists clog the town. The timing on my reading this was coincidentally right after hearing from two dear friends about their trips to Edinburgh. So many of the locations for the book felt familiar to me, because I had just spent some time immersed in the geography of the city.

The story starts with a bang--literally, as a shady character in a silver Peugeot is rear-ended by someone driving a blue Honda. The street is crowded with people lining up to get into a Fringe venue, and so there are a lot of witnesses who see the Honda guy get out of his car brandishing a pipe and beating the Peugeot guy senseless. One person in the crowd throws his briefcase at the Honda guy, clipping him on the shoulder, and stopping the beating long enough for the police to come.

Each chapter is told from a different point of view, with a different character as its locus. The first chapter is told from the point of view of Peugeot Guy, the second by the gentle man who threw the briefcase. There is the wife of a shady real estate developer, a retired policeman whose girlfriend is acting in a Fringe production, a fading comedian whose career is bottoming out at the Fringe, and probably some others I have forgotten. We see the "road rage" incident from several points of view, and see how its ripples spread out from the center.

Atkinson is straddling a couple of genres with this book, as she did in "Case Histories." Her policeman is putting together the pieces of what happened, but this is not strictly a detective story. Who was Honda man? Where has he gone? Why did he beat up the guy in the Peugot? What happened after the man threw his briefcase? Atkinson pulls us along through the book with these questions, but the book is more interested in exploring the characters who are caught up in this incident. We see the disintegration of the policeman's relationship with his actress girlfriend, attended by his unease in having inherited a substantial fortune that means he no longer has to work.

We see the grim malice of the real estate developer's wife as the government agents close in on his business. She has been setting aside money in preparation for this--she has suspected he was going to disappear once the business was exposed, and she intended to keep herself in the style to which she had become accustomed. It was a form of karmic payback that he had a stroke while in bed with a prostitute. He lay in a coma at the hospital as his shady dealings all came home to roost.

We see the hard life of a policewoman who lives in one of those substandard housing developments, as her house deteriorates around her, she struggles to raise her teenage son as a single parent and struggles to be accepted in the largely male world of the police.

Things become complicated when the former policeman finds a girl's corpse washed up on an island, but it slips out on the tide before he can pull it to shore. Who was she, why was she killed, and who killed her?

Atkinson is a smart writer, and she keeps a sure hand on all the various plots. Each of the characters assumes a richness that makes each of them sympathetic in some way, while simultaneously serving as elements of a complicated plot. Matryoshka dolls appear over and over again in the book--the Russian nesting dolls, where each doll holds another one inside it, until you come to the last, tiny doll: the nub of the system.

The novel itself arguable has a similar structure--each story opens up to reveal another one inside it, until at the end Atkinson reveals the center of the story--the reason it all started. Upon finishing the book, however, I was immediately reminded of the ourobouros, the snake that swallows its own tale. The ending of the book is its beginning, and the whole spins around until it meets its beginning again. It's a well crafted book, and an engaging and entertaining read.

***********HERE BE SPOILERS************

I was puzzled throughout the book--why would Honda guy be the one with road rage? He was the one who hit the other car--why did he get out and proceed to beat up the presumably innocent driver of the other car?

Atkinson answers this at the end of the book--with a little slight-of-hand/sly storytelling. Peugot guy was shady, and he had been hired by the real estate developer's wife to kill her husband. It was just coincidence that he had a stroke at the very time the "road rage" incident was happening. Honda guy is the developer's personal thug, and was trying to foil the murder before it happened. Everyone is implicated. Everyone is guilty of something. There are different degrees of guilty, and we see many of them in this book.

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