Thursday 30 July 2009

Kate Atkinson and Carol Shields

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. I was somewhat disappointed with this book, having had it in the pile for a while and was so looking forward to reading it. I read 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' when it first came out and there was a lot of interest in her as a new writer, and I would probably count it in my top 20 favourite books. For me the whole book was one huge nostalgia trip, the setting and the things she describes evoked such strong memories of my own childhood. Then I read 'Emotionally Weird' and 'Human Croquet' which I also enjoyed, though they had less of an impact and I don't have a particular recollection of either of them. But 'One Good Turn' is just a murder mystery. Very well written and well thought out and so on, but not anything very interesting in the end. I found it very confusing to begin with as she jumped from character to character trying to flesh out the story line with different people's point of view, and they all had such mundane names I couldn't remember who was who. Some aspects of the plot were rather underdeveloped and I often felt that there were too many convenient devices rather than any real behaviour. The main character, Jackson, does something which seems illogical and way out of character which I found very annoying. I found the characters a bit shallow and I did not feel sympathetic to any of them enough to care what might happen next. As a book, okay for what it is I suppose, but if you like a good murder mystery I think Ellis Peters' 'Brother Cadfael' novels are hard to beat.

'Larry's Party' by Carol Shields on the other hand was just wonderful. Another winner of the Orange Prize and a very worthy winner. You know when you read something that you will tell other people to read. I couldn't find a photo of the actual cover that my book has, which is a pity because it shows a small baby clutching at his high chair table with a disconcerted look on his face, and it was well chosen because she describes this exact photo in the story, and you feel like it really could be a picture of Larry.
So the book is essentially his life story. I suppose many novels are 'merely' life stories, and it's how you tell it that differentiates a good story from a mediocre one. I frequently find it hard to put my finger on quite what makes good writing, it's mostly the case that you just know it when you read it. Larry is quite an ordinary chap, struggling with the ordinary things in life and trying to find some meaning. The story follows him from his early twenties through to his forties. Some things happen to him rather by chance, like the way he falls into being a florist, but at other times he carves out a path for himself of his own choosing. It is very much a story about Larry's relationships; with his parents, his wives, his son, his co-workers and his long standing friends. You watch how people come in and out of his life and how each of them changes him. Maybe the art of writing well is to make the ordinary feel remarkable. Nothing dramatic happens to him, beyond some kind of non-specific middle aged 'attack' which leaves him in hospital for some weeks, and yet his life contains all human experience, examined under the microscope of a very astute observer.


  1. Curious this ... I picked up 'Larry's party' from a charity shop (as I do many of my books these days) thinking 'I've heard a lot about it I ought to read it and found it very much a cobbling together of what felt like blogposts, while having read Kate Atkinson's 'Behind the Scenes' (borrowed and disliked for no memorable reason) I was recently introduced to Jackson Brody and found 'One good turn' to be the best of the lot. Which goes to show there are a wide variety of readers out there!

  2. Ha! - just spotted the date on this original post - I was directed by the 'you might like' tag ...


Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.