Review: Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson
In common with every reviewer who writes about Kate Atkinson’s novels, I have a legal obligation to start this post by noting that she wrote literary fiction before she started writing crime fiction, and that her crime fiction isn’t really crime fiction because it uses the crime fiction genre conventions in such clever, literary ways. What isn’t noted quite as often is the fact that her ostensibly literary fiction was riddled with mystery and acts of obfuscation and detection. What is Behind the Scenes of a Museum if it is not a whodunit?
Like all novels in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took my Dog hangs on a central, surprising event. Like cracks spreading out across a pane of glass, the implications and effects of this incident fracture and distort the lives of the characters we meet. At first, the effect is almost impressionistic, the pace sedate. We have fragments of different points of view: an actress trying to hold on as dementia frays her mind; a security chief despairing behind her impassive façade; a middle-aged man lost in the turns of his life; flashbacks to other lives, other, seemingly random, events. It is 60 pages in before we are even introduced our nominal sleuth, Brodie.
Jackson Brodie is an interesting protagonist who differs from so many other series protagonists in his ability to shift and change. We have the pleasure here of watching a man progress though the storms and calms of his life. I think middle age is one of the most difficult passages in a character’s life to evoke but with these novels, Atkinson manages it with sensitivity and startling verisimilitude. Yet Brodie is more a man to whom things happen, and as such, he is often at the periphery of events in these novels, with other characters taking centre stage. These stories are told through the eyes of many characters and always with compassion and a devastating understanding of what makes humans do the things they do, no matter how terrible.
In this extraordinary, terrible empathy, the novelist Atkinson is most like is Charles Dickens. And she is like him in other ways, too. She shares Dickens’ understanding that it is connections and intersections, coincidences really, that make up the narrative of our lives. It takes a brave writer, especially in this genre, to reflect this in her work. Humour, too, is another similarity. Atkinson’s work is unexpectedly very funny, from the broadest of slapstick to the bleakest of ironies.
One of her cleverest ironies in Started Early is the way plot is used in the novel – it manages to be both so tightly wrought that at the moment it all come together the reader suffers a delightful kind of literary whiplash and yet, this seems almost incidental to what the novel is about. The comeuppance faced by the villains of this piece is almost an afterthought, a dénouement that oddly manages to both baffle and satisfy the narrative desires of the reader. But there is so much more here. This is a meditation on aging, of how time changes one, and like all Atkinson’s work, the inescapability of one’s past.
Reading Kate Atkinson’s work is always a bittersweet pleasure, quite apart from the ache at the heart of her novels. Reading her work always leaves me midway between inspiration and despair. This is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.