Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

One Good Turn: Schillinger, Bk, and Ed weigh in

Liesl Schillinger reviews Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn here, and I agree with nearly everything she says, save her dislike of character Gloria Hatter, wife of nasty housing developer Graham Hatter. More on that later.

One Good Turn opens with a road rage incident, artfully spiraling outward to include the corrupt builders of Hatter Homes, the thriving Russian sex trade, Martin Canning, a nebbishy, woeful writer of bad mysteries, and Case Histories detective Jackson Brodie. Along for the ride are Julia Land, Jackson’s lover, policewoman Louise Monroe, Louise’s son, Archie, and a host of other characters, all of whom have roles to play in the book’s realization. Atkinson is like Doestoyevsky—pay attention to that cart driver on page twelve. He won’t reappear until page three hundred forty, when he’ll have done or said something essential to the plot.

Schillinger writes “It’s difficult, as you survey her lineup of flawed everyday people, to decide which of them is more reprehensible (character being graded on a curve).”

This is where we diverge; Gloria, it must be admitted, has lousy taste, spending her husband’s ill-gotten funds on Staffordshire animals, acquired via e-bay auction, and paintings featuring baskets of kittens. She detests rule breakers and “line-jumpers”, wishing them dead (who amongst us hasn’t felt this way?). Gloria longs to do good in the world, albeit in an English, let’s-get-ahead-with-it-in-my-way manner. Wrenching flashbacks of her husband and father-in-law drowning a nest of kittens in their shop yard and Christmases past, where lovingly prepared meals are met with scorn, give ballast to her motivations. Gloria's final actions, without giving away the ending, spring from generous impulse.

Louise, the policewoman assigned to the case, prides herself on being tough. We first meet her sourly contemplating her mother’s ashes, wondering about maternal love. Like Gloria, her primary affection is focused on cats, specifically the aged, dying Jellybean, though, she worries inordinately over her child, the adolescent, mumbling Archie.

Louise, Gloria, and Tatiana, (Graham's Russian mistress and an employee of the myserious Favors agency) are wry, wordly-wise, nearly unflappable. When Gloria and Tatiana meet in the hospital (where Graham lies comatose), their exchange is darkly, wildly funny:

“He likes to be submissive,” Tatiana yawned. “Powerful men, they’re all the same...Idyots.” (78)

A little later, “Gloria divided the money from the ATM between herself and Tatiana. They had, after all, both earned Graham’s money in their own ways. In the seventies, women had marched for 'Wages for housework.’ Wages for sex seemed to make more sense. Housework had to be done whether you liked it or not, but sex was optional.” (81)

Julia Land, Jackson Brodie’s lover, inhabits the other side of the fence, flirting her way through life, “acting” in third-rate plays, brushing off Jackson’s marriage proposals. I’ve yet to read a review that finds Julia as annoying as her sister Amelia did in Case Histories, or for that matter, what about Julia ever appealed to a sober fellow like Jackson. He does come to his senses—he is nothing if not practical—and I'm not giving anything away in saying that as One Good Turn winds itself to a conclusion, Jakcson and Julia's incongruous liaison unravels.

Schillinger comments aptly on Atkinson’s use of technology to delineate character. No more proverbial detectives with magnifying glasses. Everyone, these days, is watching CSI. Thus cellphones and palm pilots, laptops (as weapons!) and memory sticks. Atkinson has fun with poular culture; Jackson still loves the sad ladies of American country music. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with its bad plays and rude audiences, is send-up of every cultural festival ever endured. Martin Canning’s appearance on a mystery writers panel, complete with rude co-authors and an American writer called Betty-Mae, is hilariously mocking; one envisions Atkinson giggling happily as she typed.

All in all, a fine leap from the genre.

For additional commentary on Liesl Schillinger, check out Ed Champion’s comments here.

Authors, Book Reviews

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