Monday, March 14, 2011

Atkinson's Human Croquet is flawed, but entertaining

Book 26: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

There is promise in Kate Akinson's second book, Human Croquet. Promise that only occasionally manages to escape the black hole of the book's faults.

The major problem is that Kate Atkinson is not Kurt Vonnegut Jr. In Vonnegut's celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. Isobel Fairfax, the 16-year-old protagonist of Human Croquet, also appears to have become unstuck in time or, perhaps, she's been teleported to a parallel dimension. Neither Isobel nor the reader are certain at first.

As it happens, neither explanation proves true.  There is another reason that Isobel is jumping from the present to the past and the future. It has to do a with tree in the family garden.  

Whatever the explanation, the literary device that Atkinson uses to tell Isobel's story is distracting and unnecessary. As her in splendid debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson furnishes the reader with a riveting character who has a compelling life story.  Unlike that novel, Human Croquet goes off the rails. The story is lost due to the confusion brought on by the smoke and mirrors the author conjures to tell Isobel's story.

If Atkinson had confined herself to telling Isobel's story, Human Croquet would have been a more pleasing book and a more successful one. In her zest to present the reader with a book as accomplished as her first, Atkinson over extends herself.  Inventiveness gives away to invention, creativity to an artificial construct.

If, ultimately, Human Croquet does not succeed it is because we see too much of the writer and not enough of the story, which is -- for that -- a very good story.

Isobel's mother is missing. Her father, who vanished and presumably dead, mysteriously returns after several years, a new wife in tow. Where is her mother? Why did her father vanish with no explanation? 

Human Croquet is worth reading for those answers. Atkinson's talent -- and she is one of the finest novelists writing today -- shines through.  Atkinson is particularly given to astonishing "degrees of separation." Characters are connected in ways that the reader never anticipated; ways that enrich the story and our experience. 

She is also one of only a handful of novelist who can be genuinely funny.

Fans of the lady will want to read Human Croquet, both for the story and to chart her development as a writer. Readers unfamiliar with her work are recommended to pick up Behind the Scenes at the Museum or When Will There Be Good News? Two books in which Atkinson's skill as a writer are on full display.

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The completion of Human Croquet advances me in a reading challenge that I have taken up in 2011.

The challenge was issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. I have read three of my 12 since undertaking the challenge. This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

1 comment:

  1. Well done!

    Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)