Author: Kate Atkinson
Details: (c) Kate Atkinson 1997; Pub Black Swan 1998; ISBN 0-552-99619-X
Verdict: Human croquet is well written and extremely unconfortable.
Reasons for reading it: I keep thinking I ought to like Atkinson, so I have given her more second chances than I normally would, in spite of hating Behind the scenes at the museum and Emotionally weird.
How it came into my hands: RS' book hamper.
Human Croquet is a really horrifying book, but by the time I realized how horrible it was going to be, I was already emotionally engaged with the characters and the story. It contains a lot of child abuse, and a fair quantity of other kinds of violence and brutality. It also allowed me to appreciate why such a fuss is made of Atkinson, because it is really amazingly well written. It's not quite like The bone people, which is the most disturbing book I have ever read, but which is so fantastically wonderful that everyone should read it anyway (I guess the other that goes in that category is The color purple), but still, it's very good.
It is absolutely subversive of its genre, which is that happy medium between trashy chicklit and overly pretentious unreadable plotless wank, (and which is the reason I expected to like Atkinson). That's why I got so drawn into the story that I couldn't bear to give up when it started getting dark and disturbing, and even at its scariest, it somehow doesn't violate its genre conventions. It still remains mimetic fiction about a teenaged girl discovering the adult world, and various interlocking relationships and some symbolism and not entirely linear plots, to show it's a proper literary book. It's readable and accessible throughout, though.
Isobel makes an excellent narrator; she's extremely sympathetic even when she's being irritatingly adolescent. (She reminds me of what I imagine j4 to have been like as a teenager.) Her writing carries off a very difficult trick of being very polished and powerful, while not spoiling the illusion of stereotypical adolescent flaws. That is, she writes in the pretentious, florid style of an intelligent but rather emo teenager, and yet the writing is so good that it's actually lyrical as well. This sets up her rather weird experiences, such as occasionally being transported back in time or living both paths of a bifurcating narrative, as absolutely ambiguous whether they are real or just her over-active teenaged imagination. I think to make sense of the book you have to hold both possibilities in your head at once, which makes it about the most successful version of the unreliable narrator trope I've come across. And it's also highly successful in creating sympathy for characters that Isobel herself dislikes.
The subject matter makes me almost wish I hadn't read it, in spite of its very high quality. It's not unremittingly depressing by any means, and indeed the ending is quite upbeat. But it's positive on the Job sort of level, of accepting that this is a world where humans can do some utterly vile things to eachother but it's what we have and if you don't give in to despair you just go on living and finding love and happiness where you can anyway. Impressive, anyway.