KAtkinson has always had a knack for book titles. Her novels – all 12 – have names that were sometimes long and sometimes unwieldy, but always memorable. There was Behind the scenes of the museumfor example, or Started early, took my dog with me. A god in ruins would look striking in any font while Human croquet conjured up all sorts of intriguing visual images.
Still, when she presented her latest novel to her editor last year and, with her usual Atkinson aplomb, told her what she wanted to call it, there was a collective gasp.
“shrines of happinesssays Larry Finlay, her publisher at Transworld. He says it slowly, as if weighing each word. “shrines, happiness. Yes, there was definitely a little “oooh” in response. But,” he adds diplomatically, “I think it’s working. In fact, I think it’s pretty awesome.”
Given that she’s produced several bestsellers for him over the past quarter century, Finlay’s reaction might not come as a surprise — but he’s emphasizing it here is a line, and it’s not always ready to cross it.
“Take your second Jackson Brodie novel,” he says, of Atkinson’s ongoing crime series, “which is called A good turn. Kate originally wanted to name it The Funny Murder Mystery. We had an argument about it.”
Kate Atkinson occupies a narrow space within British literature. Effortlessly bridging the gap between literature and commerce, she is one of the country’s most popular novelists: her books become bestsellers simply because they are by Kate Atkinson. So their latest album will be another sure hit and likely habit be held back by its title, chunky as it is undeniably.
shrines of happiness is a convergence of two recurring genres of Atkinson: the historical novel and the police procedural novel. It tells the story of Nellie Coker, owner of a string of nightclubs in London’s Soho, in 1926. Coker is indomitable, a woman for whom the law must be broken if it serves her purpose (which it often does). Freed from a brief prison stint, she returns to her empire, which she runs far more successfully than her six children. There are echoes from televisions successor inside shrines of happinesswith her matriarch surveying her bloodline to decide who most deserves to take over the business, only to find that each of the candidates wants it.
As this is a Kate Atkinson novel, there is a secondary plot involving two runaways who come to London in search of fame and glamour, and a third involving a weary policeman using a spy to infiltrate Coker’s clan to infiltrate in hopes of bringing them down permanently.
It is a book teeming with people and places, events and incidents, and written with the garrulous enthusiasm for which its author was justly celebrated. If it’s occasionally suffused with clichés, it may be because, as Atkinson once said, “I like taking clichés and working with them.” Here it goes “up with a bang” and “takes off like a rocket”. Origins are “lost in the middle of time”. On almost every one of its 435 pages, parenthetical notes are conveyed by the author, as if Atkinson were winking at us, the readers, while she whispers mischievous digression from the corner of her mouth.
“(What did Florence with her time?),” one reads. Another: “(She was 25!)” Still another: “(She was her mother’s daughter.)” The book contains perhaps more page bracketed information than any other novel written in the English language.
“Oh, she can get away with it So a lot, isn’t it?” says Finlay. “So much breaking the fourth wall in the middle of what could otherwise be a very tense moment between the characters. I have to say,” he continues, “I wouldn’t allow any other writer to get away with something like that—I’d pull out my blue pencil in a heartbeat! – but Kate? Kate makes it work beautifully.”
Atkinson came to writing comparatively late. Born in Yorkshire in 1951, she worked as a secretary and teacher and was married twice (she has two children, one from each marriage) before taking up writing seriously. her first novel Backstage…was released in 1995 when she was 43 years old. It won the Whitbread Prize, beating Salman Rushdies The Moor’s last sigh. Joanna Cannon, the author of The trouble with goats and sheep and Break & Mendingand a former resident—who, like Atkinson, only turned to fiction in midlife—spotted it in her local library shortly thereafter.
“And I’ve been reading them ever since. It has everything to do with that connection At the end of the day,” says Cannon, “there is a connection that a book makes with a reader. It’s actually a very difficult thing, but Kate is doing it so well and so quickly. She instantly puts you in a situation and in a specific timeline, and you feel like you’ve known her characters your entire life. Even secondary characters are drawn so well.”
It was Hilary Mantel who suggested that Atkinson “has a more elaborate game plan than Dickens'” – a nod to the amount of activity in her books and the number of characters jostling for space. Wallflowers are rare. That was never truer than in her most famous novel, the 2013 life after life, the story of a woman destined to live her life over and over again, always dying before her time and often in unpleasant ways: suicide, murder, illness. It was kind of unfunny Groundhog Day in which the protagonist has to subliminally learn from the misjudgments and mistakes of previous lives in order to survive longer in the next. For example, during one incarnation she manages to avoid the abusive husband she married in a previous one; in another she kills Hitler. The book won the Costa Award for Best Novel, as did its 2015 sequel. A god in ruins.
As with her crime novels – which feature the wrinkled but appealing detective Jackson Brodie and ran like this for two series case histories on the BBC, starring Jason Isaacs – life after life had a life of its own when it was adapted into BBC drama earlier this year.
“I knew a lot of people had tried to adapt it over the years, mainly as a film,” says Bash Doran, who wrote the screenplay, “but I was very anxious that it would be made into a television play. I thought it was an extraordinarily complex book, almost a piece of philosophy, and for me the challenge wasn’t just to focus on this superhero whose job it was ultimately to kill Hitler because it went so much deeper and all much more was profound. It was about life and how to live it. Kate is an incredible writer.”
Atkinson herself hasn’t said much about either adaptation, but then again, she says very little about most things. Unusually for a successful modern novelist, she is an enigma. She lives in Edinburgh, well away from what she sees as the crazy crowd, and rarely gives interviews. She hasn’t recently disqualified any of her future books from entering literary competitions, perhaps because she’s been repeatedly overlooked by the booker (“her loss,” Finlay posits), and she only thinks so speak distressing about her work, and once suggested being asked what her books are about would be “the most obnoxious question.” Why bother to write something when you have to explain it? It is what it is. It’s about things.”
So at age 70, Atkinson is a throwback, an old-fashioned writer, not on social media, never on the gossip sites. She is someone who simply wants her work to exist on her own terms, on the page, and to be enjoyed – privately – by a reader who allows her the luxury of being left alone to get on with the writing of her next book, and the ones after that.
(And honestly, who can blame her?)
Shrines of Gaiety will be released on September 27th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/kate-atkinson-new-book-2022-b2172786.html “Oh, She Gets Away With So Much”: The Mischievous World of Kate Atkinson Books