BY Kate Atkinson Doubleday, 348pp, £17.99 Review by DAVID ROBINSON
READER, SUSPEND DISBELIEF. FIND something high-flown, and attach with care, then send your critical faculties hurtling. Kate Atkinson's latest (darkest? bloodiest? most free-wheeling?) slice of make-belief has attitude and altitude in abundance.
It pushes its luck in taking coincidence and outlandishness to levels of sheer unadulterated chutzpah, and by its stomach-curdling ending, it's so accelerated that you're waiting for the wheels to come off. They don't.
What is evident here is a writer having such fun it just might be illegal. Tag along. The plot begins with a horrible slaying, and ends with a baby clapping its hands and all but cooing. In between lies the story of fates (some resolved, others not) in fated collision. File it under crime if you must, but only because there's not a shelf in the bookstore labelled "assorted killings, wild coincidences, neat social observations, well-stocked minds and purring literary pleasure".
When we first meet him, Jackson Brodie, Atkinson's ex-army, ex-cop, ex-gumshoe protagonist, is broodingly pondering paternity, nicking hairs from the little boy who may or may not be his son. Blink, and he's off, on a train heading south, with the DNA. Blink, and he's suddenly inadvertently hurtling north, it seems, to Waverley, a reversal of direction that's hard to swallow, and ends in a crunch, with Jackson's future (and the narrative's credibility) on the line.
It's crunch time too for Edinburgh GP Dr Jo Hunter, the novel's first victim and strangest, most complicated survivor. The opening scene takes us back to Jo, then barely six, with her mother and siblings, roaming a lonely Devon lane when they're inexplicably knifed by a killer. The crazed attack claims all but Jo, its only witness. She hides in a waist-high harvest wheat field. The killer is caught, and Jo is rescued by a stranger.
The extent to which the past is ever with us is one of the novel's embedded themes. As is the bond between mother and child, and the ties of family, for good or ill. Reggie, Jo's nanny, perhaps the novel's most moral character and the link that binds so many of its winding narrative threads, is an orphaned 16-year-old, dividing herself between time with the well-off Hunters and Ms MacDonald, Reggie's old teacher. Reggie's older, miscreant brother makes odd appearances to test her moral fibre and family resolve.
The plot is unflagging. Its other key strand involves Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, Brodie's old flame, now married to Patrick, a silky-tongued Irish surgeon.
When Jackson, hurtling north to Scotland, heads off the rails, we know it's only a matter of time before kismet strikes, to bring them together, to mess them up; furthermore, it's a matter of pages before the savvy yet innocent Reggie falls in with Jackson. Coincidence? Well, as Jackson always says: "A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen."
A gangland subplot involving Dr Hunter's iffy husband, Neil, provides the book with a culmination of gore and arson. All this is spiced with the news that the wheat-field killer is once again on the loose. Will he haunt Jo's dreams, perhaps dog her footsteps? Will her husband shrug off the thugs? Will Reggie's goodness be rewarded, her brother straightened, and Jackson – embroiled in a love affair down south – discover he truly has a son?
Atkinson answers some of these questions, others she dangles. What is amazing is the sense she extracts from the plot, infusing her customary dry, acerbic humour through the mix to keep the narrative glossily buoyant. As in her other two Jackson Brodie novels, the body count here is higher than the Zimbabwean rate of inflation. Perhaps she's angling to write the next Batman script, or perhaps we should see the bright side – the gurgling baby Gabriel, the decent doctor, the saintly nanny, the bad guys getting a kind of comeuppance, and innocent love of the pure, maternal kind held aloft in celebration. There are no subtexts, no mock gravitas. This is fiction; go hitch a ride.
• David Robinson is at the Edinburgh book festival on 22 August.