Café Conversation ~ Sunday September 15th 2019

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?

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21 thoughts on “Café Conversation ~ Sunday September 15th 2019

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings September 15, 2019 / 2:18 pm

    Well, although I’ve not read Atkinson, I agree with the points you make. I think you have to be very careful if you’re using recent traumatic events in fiction, and if you cross the line which makes your fiction seem real the potential effects could be very damaging. I wouldn’t read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 15, 2019 / 2:42 pm

      Thanks, Karen. I was in two minds about this post but I don’t think I’ve ever been left as unsettled by a book as this one and I need to explore why.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. stargazer September 15, 2019 / 3:07 pm

    I can see why the sexual abuse cases in Big Sky would make you uncomfortable, I would probably feel the same. I didn’t know it was based on a real life case. The Rivers of London series is a favourite of mine, but I decided to give The October Man a miss. To me these books are closely linked to London, so The October Man just didn’t appeal.

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    • Café Society September 15, 2019 / 5:13 pm

      Yes, I’m very fond of the Rivers of London and, as you suggest, they are very strongly tied to place. Having just finished The October Man, the only reasons I can see for writing it are that either it is going to become a second series or there is going to be either an incursion into Germany on Peter’s behalf or into London by Tobi (which name is going to cause all sorts of confusion for the audio version). Given that The October Man ends with a new recruit/apprentice joining the German branch I can’t see this being a one-off.

      Liked by 1 person

      • stargazer September 15, 2019 / 6:05 pm

        I guess we will have to wait and see. The next Peter Grant novel is meant to be published this fall. Actually, I thought Lies Sleeping might have been the final book in the series; it felt like a nice wrap up.

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      • Café Society September 15, 2019 / 6:17 pm

        That was my feeling too and the reason I think this might be the prelude to taking us off in a different direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Liz September 15, 2019 / 5:36 pm

    Oh dear indeed. It sounds like you need to reach for a beloved book to feed the soul before embarking on anything else that is new and untested.

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  4. heavenali September 15, 2019 / 10:03 pm

    I hadn’t realised that the story in Big Sky was based on real events. I completely understand your discomfort. I was underwhelmed by Transcription too actually, so I wonder whether I will get to this one or not.

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    • Café Society September 17, 2019 / 5:00 pm

      I’m wondering the same thing about anything else she writes, Ali, but I have so loved some of her earlier work.

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  5. FictionFan September 15, 2019 / 11:30 pm

    I had a very similar reaction to a standalone from Val McDermid a few years ago – the name escapes me at the moment – which was based far too closely on the life of Jade Goody. What made it worse was that the character in the book was faking having cancer – given Jade Goody’s real death from cancer at such a tragically early age I found it completely distasteful and wondered what it must have felt like for her relatives and friends to see her story used in such a way. Sometimes authors need to remember what “fiction” means…

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    • Café Society September 17, 2019 / 5:01 pm

      Exactly, FF. I don’t mind a writer taking up a current social concern and exploring it through a fictional setting, but this comes to close to reality for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeanne September 16, 2019 / 12:30 am

    I had this reaction to Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which featured characters preaching (about the environment) instead of an author weaving a good story around the characters. It’s terrible when this happens. I was not disappointed by Atwood’s The Testaments.

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    • Café Society September 17, 2019 / 5:02 pm

      Your reaction to The Testaments is interesting Jeanne. Reviews here have been divided. No one dislikes it, but a lot of people have been asking whether there was any real point in writing it.

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      • Jeanne September 17, 2019 / 11:22 pm

        There is certainly a real point to Atwood having written The Testaments, and there’s a real point to everyone reading it (which is what I think should happen). It’s the same point a character in the play The Laramie Project makes about the two boys who killed Matthew Shepard–that we can say evil happens because some people are “monsters,” but what happens when we say that, even to ourselves, is that we allow evil to continue to grow in our midst by pretending that evil-doers are monsters instead of ordinary people who were allowed or even encouraged to do little bad things until they worked up to something truly monstrous.
        At the end of The Testaments, Aunt Lydia says “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? You will ask. You yourself would never have done such things!”
        The point is to see that people do such things, and how it can happen.

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  7. Helen September 16, 2019 / 7:51 pm

    I was looking forward to reading Big Sky, but I hadn’t realised what it was about and having read your thoughts on it I can see exactly why it bothered you. I still need to read the previous book, Started Early, Took My Dog first anyway, then I’ll decide whether I want to try this one or not. I hope your next few reads are more successful!

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    • Café Society September 17, 2019 / 5:03 pm

      Don’t let me put you off, Helen, but if you do decide to read it then just go into it knowing that the situation will be very real for some people.

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  8. Jenny @ Reading the End September 17, 2019 / 1:50 am

    Phew, I have been thinking a lot lately about the ethics of marketing real-life trauma, whether it’s in fictional format like this or in nonfiction format like true crime etc. It sounds like Atkinson doesn’t strike the right balance with this book, which sucks — I wish authors would be more mindful of this, honestly.

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    • Café Society September 17, 2019 / 5:06 pm

      I am surprised at Atkinson, Jenny. I thought she was better than this.

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  9. BookerTalk September 22, 2019 / 10:03 pm

    I wasn’t aware when I read Blue Sky that it was based on a real situation. The narrative does refer to Jimmy Saville as being active in the area but that was the only factual element I picked up on. So yes I do wonder if knowledge can influence your reaction to a book. I’m not being critical of your response in any way, if you have some kind of family knowledge and insight I can imagine it being very difficult to read. I was able to read it as an interesting and engaging story.

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