Friday, April 15, 2011
Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson takes the police/detective novel and turns it inside out. Mysteries happen, of course, there are murders, there is police procedure, there are even solutions. But the mysteries themselves are less important as mysteries than as ways to illuminate and examine the lives of the people around them. Her books peel away the layers that surround human lives and examine what is left.
Maybe this sounds pretentious, but that's only because I can't articulate how she does what she does in a pithy way. But what she is doing is what Tana French is also doing--exploring the form and tropes of the detective format and using it to do something that operates in a different universe than Dan Brown.
Let's get to spoiling right away, shall we? Because honestly, the plot is only the engine for what else Atkinson is doing.
Start with Jackson Brodie, the former police officer and the nominal protagonist of this and three previous Atkinson books. Brodie lost almost everything in the last book, When Will There Be Good News? He was literally resuscitated after a train derailment, he discovered that his wife had been a scam artist, who had married him and lived with him only as long as it took her to clear out his substantial bank account. Everything about her had been a lie, including her name. Now he is effectively homeless, and certainly rootless, driving around England ostensibly while doing investigative work for a woman in New Zealand who wants to find her birth parents. It is not a coincidence that her life is faked too. The birth certificate is forged, the names of the birth parents were invented. It seems like the truth was buried in Leeds, and the person who might have the answers is a social worker named Linda Palliser.
Linda Palliser doesn't want to talk to Brodie, however. She literally takes the first flight out of town and remains out of communication for the rest of the novel. Because she doesn't dare tell anyone the truth. So Brodie has to figure things out on his own.
The second major protagonist of the book is a woman named Tracy Waterhouse. Tracy was a new constable in 1975 on the West Yorkshire police force, and a recent retiree from the force. She was always a big girl, and made her career by being "one of the boys." She never married, had no family, no social life. So, of course, she went into private security, working for a shopping mall in Leeds. One fateful day, she sees one too many children in jeopardy, and she impulsively intercedes. The child's mother is a prostitute and drug addict well known to the police, and Tracy can't stand watching the 4 year old child being dragged and berated across the mall. She has a large sum of cash, to pay the Polish builder who is renovating her kitchen, and impulsively she offers the cash in exchange for the child. The mother grabs the money, hops on a bus, and disappears.
Despite spending her entire adult life as a law enforcer, Tracy immediately acts like a criminal and more or less goes on the run with the child. Does this make sense? I mean, logically, does it make sense that a 50 year old police superintendent would really think that by handing a wad of cash to a drug addict and taking custody of a neglected child from a visibly unfit parent, that she had somehow actually bought the kid? Does she really think that she has descended to the same moral level as kidnappers and pedophiles? Does Atkinson really expect us to buy this complete 180 of behavior?
Well, no, not really. Because Atkinson is operating in a gray area between realism and metaphor. She sets up the plausibility of the situation--Tracy Waterhouse was stinted of love herself, both as a child and as an adult, and she had plenty of traumatic experiences as a police officer, seeing children threatened, abused, and murdered. So the reader can understand why she might just reach a breaking point and snap, deciding on nothing more than an emotional compulsion that this child she would save, to stand in for all the children she couldn't (or didn't) save in the past.
While it is less believable that she would then immediately consider herself to be a criminal for doing so, and run from her home, change her name, and generally skulk around rather than being the powerful force of confrontation she was throughout her career. But Atkinson isn't interested so much in Tracy's character as she is in Tracy's situation--the sudden change of you world, the madness that is parental love, the way the inclusion of a child into your life fundamentally changes who you are.
There are parallels throughout the story--couples who struggle with infertility, women who struggle with unwanted pregnancy, a police officer whose daughter ends up in a persistent vegetative state after her husband causes an auto accident while drunk, that also kills their infant son. There are bad parents, abusive parents, stingy parents, drug addicted parents, and the tragedy that not all the children can be saved, and not all of them manage to overcome the bad hands they are dealt. The woman Tracy "buys" the little girl off of has other children, all the rest of whom have been placed in foster care. One of them we later see on the streets, working as a prostitute.
On the other hand, some children manage remarkably well. The tragic story of Michael Braithwaite, for example, has a good enough ending, although we don't get the full story until the end of the book. The book opens in 1975, when the young Tracy Waterhouse and her partner Ken Ackerman are called to a block of flats by reports of a horrible smell. Ken looks through the mail slot, then breaks down the door. A prostitute by the name of Carol Braithwaite has been killed in her flat, and her 4 year old son was trapped inside with the body for nearly three weeks, subsisting on what food he could find. He couldn't open the door, couldn't get people to notice him in the window of the unit. Tracy picked him up to soothe him, and broke her heart. There was some sort of cover-up, and Michael was taken away by Linda Pallister and disappeared.
At the end we learn that he was placed in a Catholic orphanage under a different name, but when he turned 18 he was given his true name and turned loose on the world. He made a small fortune in dealing scrap metal, married, and has a normal suburban life of wife, three kids, and barbeques. So, yay? Sometimes things do work out?
But it's the convoluted, the ass-covering, the misery that Atkinson feasts on. Back in 1975, what really happened? One of the cops on the force where Tracy worked had been using Carol Braithwaite as a prostitute, and then she got pregnant and used the baby as a leverage for money, ultimately pressuring the cop (named Len Lomax) to leave his wife and marry her. Poor Michael was the result of a previous liaison, four to Lomax daughter's two, and wanted to think of Lomax as "Daddy." In fact, was probably encouraged to do so by Carol as part of her desperate and bi-polar desire for normalcy. She pushed him one too many times, however, threatening to confront his (desperately childless) wife, and in his anger he throttled her to death.
The boys' club of the police rallied around him, got the little girl out of the flat and gave her to a (desperately childless) pediatrician and his (botched-abortion infertile) wife, who promptly lit out for New Zealand. Lomax didn't mention the boy, who was locked in from the outside and managed to keep himself alive until the smell of the decomposing body got the neighbors to call. And broke Tracy's heart. Also broke the heart of one of the other cops, the low level Ray Strickland who was sent to fetch the girl and bring her to the doctor. He left the boy behind, unwilling to ask questions or volunteer information--he'd been told his career might depend on it. He also questioned his own behavior--why not take the baby girl and bring her home to his own (desperately childless) wife? Or the boy? He didn't do either--two chances for happiness he wasted.
Tracy was left for years to believe something wrong had happened. She noticed that the door had been locked from the outside, she noticed that Lomax and Strickland knew the layout of the flat before they should have. Plus, she asked after Michael Braithwaite, with a vague intention of raising him herself. She was told to stop asking questions, and that the directive came from "above." Cops worked with criminals who had connections to cover up, fake passports, keep their careers on track while deeply compromising their own integrity.
In many ways, Atkinson is a chilly writer--this book especially is more about ideas and themes than flesh and blood characters. We have people who have children and don't want them, people who don't have children and do want them, people who have children and are deeply ambivalent about their ability to raise them, people who are doting parents, indifferent parents, cold parents, unfit parents, parents who are doing their best with limited skills. . .a range of parent-child relationships, past and present, from both the adult and the child perspectives. There is quite a lot of background --not directly dramatized--about the things Tracy Waterhouse has seen done to children in the course of her police work, that makes her cynical, angry and hurt on behalf of those vulnerable children. We see the well-intentioned Jackson Brodie being flummoxed by his daughter's teen-aged behavior, his groping toward a relationship with his own four-year old son and the difficult woman he loves but can't be with.
Brodie also manages to acquire a dog, in a plot that parallels Tracy's story. He sees the dog running off leash in a park, which is then corralled by a brute who uses a noose instead of a leash, who kicks the dog then throws it into the boot of the car. Brodie is so incensed that he punches the guy in the solar plexus and takes the dog. He then smuggles the dog around England in a rucksack, learning the rules of dog ownership in a parody of the way Tracy is learning to be a mother. It's a formal device that has some resonance, but doesn't really work. It doesn't really illuminate Brodie's character, and it doesn't really serve as commentary on how society treats children like dogs. It did rather undermine my empathy for Tracy, to find that even she didn't treat her new-found child like a person so much as a difficult accessory. Like a pet, in fact.
This is really a rambling review, in part because there is so much stuffed into this book. I haven't even mentioned the Jackson Brodie doppelganger--another character who hovers ominously around the book, always a step or two ahead or behind Jackson and Tracy. In the end he is revealed to be a "Brian Jackson," a private detective who was hired by Michael Braithwaite to find his parents, again, paralleling Brodie's search. This allows for some of the plot to be driven by other characters confusing the two names. Tracy thinks both the Jacksons are going to turn her in for kidnapping, when they just want to know what she knows about Carol Braithwaite. So Atkinson is wrestling with doubling and tripling of her themes, which is intellectually intriguing if a little cold emotionally.
But Atkinson can do emotionally affecting work! She can! And for that, I point to her wonderful C plot character, Matilda "Tilly" Squires, a character actress whose mind is shredding with early onset Alzheimer's. She works on preposterous police television series, flitting back and forth between her own chilly upbringing, the baby and good man she lost through the officious meddling of her "friend," and her own sinking awareness of her vanishing present. Plotwise, poor Tilly is a bit of disaster, hanging off the main storyline like a loose thread, and then brought in as deus ex machina to finish off the bad guy and let Tracy escape. But I'll excuse that, for the wonderful way Atkinson brings her mental deterioration to vivid life. Honestly, it's heartbreaking and infuriating, and precisely the kind of well crafted character I wish we could have had more of in this book.
Not that I'm exactly complaining--it's a fascinating book, intricately plotted, with layers of meaning playing off against each other, raising the ongoing challenge of how our culture treats children. Atkinson also liberally sprinkles the pages with ruminations on poetry and how it illuminates our lives. The title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickenson, and Brodie finds himself brooding (Brodie/brooding--I don't think that's a coincidence either) on her poems. Tilly Squires finds herself pulling up quotes from the Shakespeare plays she's been in her whole life. Poetry, fiction, cultural mores--Atkinson has stuffed this book full of ideas. It's well worth reading.