Awful events befall an awful lot of people in British author Kate Atkinson’s seventh novel—which makes the title both darkly appropriate and robustly ironic in a manner that perfectly suits this marvelous author’s sui generis style. When Will There Be Good News? is her third book featuring police-officer-turned-private-eye Jackson Brodie, and Atkinson initially seems to flout every genre requirement but in the end comes through with a series of dazzling twists of plot (and fate) that not only tell us whodunit but remind us that this risk-taking author never does what’s expected.
Her iconoclasm may at first disconcert readers expecting conventional narrative development. The novel opens with a grim chapter in which a knife-wielding lunatic attacks a family strolling down a country lane in Devon. He kills the mother, eldest daughter, infant son, and even the dog; only six-year-old Joanna Mason manages to run away, to be found hours later by police in a field of wheat. The scene abruptly shifts to Yorkshire, where Jackson Brodie seems to be pursuing an investigation. Then we meet Reggie Chase, an indomitable 16-year-old orphan working as a mother’s helper in Edinburgh while she studies for her A levels. Back to Jackson for a quick flash to inform us that he’s on a personal mission. Then it’s on to Louise Monroe, a divorced Edinburgh police officer recently and uneasily remarried to a surgeon, who spends much of her time ruminating over the horrific cases she’s worked on, many involving murderous domestic violence.
The only mystery in the novel’s first third is how members of this disparate group of people are connected to each other. Atkinson skillfully elicits our sympathy for each as she vividly traces their individual histories and creates a gallery of full-bodied personalities. Reggie, starved for love after her mother’s accidental death, basks in the warmth of her employer, Dr. Joanna Hunter. When Louise comes to warn Dr. Hunter that the man who killed her family is being paroled after 30 years in jail, we realize that the doctor is Joanna Mason, now married to shady businessman and the fiercely devoted mother of a baby boy just the age of her brother when he died. Jackson boards a train that crashes in Edinburgh. Reggie finds him in the wreckage and saves his life; Louise finds him in the hospital and recognizes the man with whom she had a passionate platonic relationship before she married the surgeon. Jackson, too, is recently remarried, though his wife is at a conference in America and he still has unresolved feelings for Louise.
Atkinson finally enters more traditional territory when Reggie is menaced by a pair of thugs looking for her ne’er-do-well brother and Joanna disappears. Louise and Jackson separately follow various clues, and both mysteries are resolved—but not with neat solutions that answer all questions. The real interest lies in her wonderful characters and the doom-laden universe they inhabit. The novel’s fundamental attitude is poignantly expressed by Jackson: “Somewhere along the lonesome highway he passed the tipping point—more years behind him than in front of him—and had suddenly begun to fear the random horror of the world.” Young though Reggie and Joanna are, they share Jackson’s and Louise’s middle-aged understanding that bad stuff happens and the consequences are lasting.
Yet there is good news in the closing pages, which pulls the rug out from under readers not once, not twice, but at least three times with bravura revelations that prompt the satisfying response of “What the …?” followed by “Oh, of course!” It’s a pleasure to be startled by the gifted Atkinson, who unabashedly piles on catastrophes and coincidences in the service of her larger point that life is random, but that doesn’t mean we can’t snatch some joy from it anyway.
Wendy Smith reviews books for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.
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