What do you do when a book you have really been looking forward to not only fails to live up to expectations but also leaves a sour taste in your mouth? This is the situation I find myself in this weekend. The offending item? Kate Atkinson’s latest Brodie Jackson novel, Big Sky. In fact, the book is, at the moment, sitting on my small side table only one third read, because I can’t bring myself to go any further with it. I normally love Atkinson’s work (although, to be fair, I wasn’t overly impressed by Transcription) but in this case I am deeply troubled by the subject matter she has chosen to work with.
Now, to be clear, it isn’t the generality of the subject matter. A hundred odd pages in it is apparent that she is concerned with the truly shocking cases of sexual abuse brought to light in the past decade, which have been perpetrated by people in positions of power. I have absolutely no problem with what is a scourge on our society being challenged through fiction. Indeed, one of the best crime novels I have read in recent years, Isabelle Grey’s The Special Girls, did precisely that. But, as far as I am aware the case around which Grey centred her story was entirely fictional, focused, as it was, on a specialist working with young women with eating disorders. Atkinson, on the other hand, has only very lightly fictionalised a real situation. I don’t think she has actually named the resort, but there is only one town on the North Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Filey with a North and South Bay. Couple that with the fact that she has given the historical perpetrators names which are very similar to those of two local men accused of involvement in such crimes and exactly the same positions in the town’s economy and for me, at least, she is walking too fine a line. Perhaps I feel more strongly about this than other readers might because my family had business dealings with both men and also knew people who had made complaints which were then ignored by the powers that be, in some cases for decades. Maybe it is too close to home. But, if I feel that way about the book, how is anyone who is still struggling with far worse memories going to feel? For me, this is a mis-step on Atkinson’s part and one which could so easily have been avoided by altering just a few of the more specific details.
So, I turned instead to Ben Aaronovitch’s latest Rivers of London outing. Although in this case, it is more like the Rivers of Germany as The October Man is set in the wine growing region of that country and features an entirely new set of characters. It is advertised as a novella positioned between last year’s Lies Sleeping and the forthcoming False Value which, according to advance publicity, has, like the previous novels, the familiar Peter Grant as main protagonist. Consequently, I’m wondering if, now that the Faceless Man has been finally dealt with, this book is working as an introduction for a new storyline, one which will pick up on Nightingale’s experiences during World War II, which so far have only been sketchily hinted at. To be honest, I can’t see the point otherwise. Oh dear, I’m not having a good weekend, am I?