Dazzling return of Atkinson’s gruff private eye in Big Sky [Review]

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson 

I’ve fallen in love again.

My admiration for Kate Atkinson collapsed in the last few years when she began to experiment with time-shifting novels like Life after Life. Her latest novel, Transcription, was  also a huge disappointment.

Where was the energetic prose, the intricate plots and witty characterisations that had made reading her work such a pleasure in the past? I feared she’d gone completely off the boil.

But my fears were unfounded.

For “my” beloved Kate Atkinson is back. And with a vengeance.

Big Sky _ Kate AtkinsonBig Sky is the first novel in nine years to feature her gruff-but-loveable private investigator Jackson Brodie. It’s a triumphant return.

Brodie is older (of course) and still rather world-weary. But he hasn’t lost his natural inclination to help or rescue other people. If he can prevent them suffering, as he did in his own life, he will, even if that means diving into the sea or jumping off a cliff. 

Big Sky sees him living in Yorkshire in the occasional company of an ageing Labrador and a taciturn teenage son (both on loan from his ex-partner Julia.

Evil lurks in seaside towns

It’s a picturesque location but one that has a sinister side.

The seaside towns of Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington were once the hunting grounds for a paedophile ring. Though the organisers were jailed, two young female detectives have started to investigate other suspected participants, including high profile members of the establishment.

What police don’t realise is that the area’s sordid past lives on through three men who’ve made a lucrative business from human trafficking. 

There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.

Their prey are young women from Eastern Europe who are duped into believing hotel jobs and a better life await them in England. Instead they become sex slaves. 

Tightly woven web of plot lines

Past and present come together in an artfully constructed plot with multiple strands that initially appear unconnected. Slowly the threads are drawn together with the help of a few coincidences and red herrings. By the end, everything is explained clearly for those readers who had a hard time keeping up. 

Big Sky is a novel that begins slowly. Atkinson is clearly in Kate Atkinson _ Big Skyplayful mode,  introducing one set of characters only to abandon them for many pages while she brings another cast to the stage. We get to know three golfing buddies; their wives; a pair of super-organised, keen as mustard female detectives, and – fleetingly– some of the trafficked girls. Figures from previous novels flit in and out like Tatiana, the Russian girl Brodie knew from  “another lifetime  when she had been a dominatrix and he had been fancy-free.” 

Having set all the balls in motion, Atkinson cranks up the pace in the final quarter with chapters chock full of kidnapped children, suspicious vehicles, rescued girls and shootings.  

Blue Sky is a fabulously entertaining book that is a significantly superior beast to most crime novels. 

Humour amid the darkness

That’s because of its beautifully drawn characters and a waspishly witty element of humour.  Just take a look at  Vince, a “middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, middle-class man” who’s been kicked out of his job and his marital bed.

He was grinding towards fifty and for the last three months had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli – he’d been on a short-lived health kick – and said, ‘Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?’ leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry.

It’s that detail of the Tesco brand cereal that makes all the difference in this sentence. There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate Kate Atkinson’s knack of nailing a character in just a phrase or a few sentences.

One wife gets put down like this:

She shopped from the Boden catalogue and was proud of having grown a horrible stunted little tree.

Ouch!

Another woman (one of the most complex in the book) is every inch the trophy wife:

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was  a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

Expectations overturned

But having framed her as the archetypal arm candy blond, ex model, and manicurist; Atkinson then proceeds to confound our expectations. Crystal turns out to be a shrewd and determined woman who refuses to allow the evils of her past get in her way.  Women, in this novel, do ultimately get their revenge on those who treat them as disposable goods.

Do you need to have read all previous Jackson Brodie novels to enjoy this one?

I’d never want to dissuade someone from reading all of this series but you don’t have to in order to appreciate Big Sky. Atkinson provides enough of the back story about Brodie and his tangled love life that you can read this as a stand alone novel. 

I’m certain once you’ve read this one however, you’ll be ultra keen to start right at the beginning of the series. Yes, Big Sky really is that good.

Footnotes 

  • Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh.
  • Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museumwon the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
  • She won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 with Life after Life (see my review here) and again in 2015 with A God in Ruins.
  • Her first novel to feature Jackson Brodie was Case Histories, published in 2005. Stephen King called it “The best mystery of the decade.”
  • Big Sky was published in June 2019 by Doubleday

Want to know more?

The Penguin website has an extract from Big Sky which is taken from the first scene involving Jackson Brodie.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Kate Atkinson talks about the impetus to write Big Sky.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 15, 2019, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. It’s good to hear that you feel Atkinson is back on form with this. It does sound hugely engaging. Out of interest, do you know if it was her decision to go back to Brodie or pressure from her readers/publisher that prompted the return?

    • Interesting question. In the interview with The Guardian she said “she always intended to bring him back, or she would have killed him off, “just to put that to bed”. So I take it that it was her own choice (though of course if the publisher repeatedly asked her what she was writing, she might have felt some pressure)

  2. I’m so glad to hear you liked this one! I liked Transcription but agree it isn’t one of her best. I’m really looking forward to reading this.

  3. It’s funny I only came to Atkinson after her first Brodie books were released, so I had no idea she was known for this series. But, now that this newest book is out, and it’s currently on my bookshelf, I clearly have no choice but to read it!

  4. Obviously a must read. I’ll be looking out for it.

  5. I was not a fan of Atkinson’s post-Brodie works either (I didn’t bother with Transcription). Good to hear this one goes back to what she does best.

  6. This will have to wait until after the summer school is over. I want to be able to give it the time and attention it deserves. I might also go back and reread the last two Brodie books. I’ve revisited books one and two for previous summer schools but there have been a lot of other books between this and book four so I think I can justify indulging in a catch-up session.

  7. Goodness! How come I’ve never heard of this series before? This sounds lovely, and I intend to start from the first book.

  8. Atkinson seems to hover between being a literary writer and an entertainer. That said, When Will There be Good News was the best book I read, a couple of years ago. Hope my library gets this one as an audiobook soon.

    • She does seem to be swinging around a lot though her recent non Brodie book, Transcription, wasn’t literary fiction really. Not sure what she was trying to do with it..

  9. I have not read her despite being surrounded by reviews of her books. This one sounds like it is chock full of characters and plot. Hopefully I will get to her one day.

  10. Great post! This one is next on my reading list and I’m so excited 🙂

  11. I too loved the first Jackson Brodie book but for reasons known only to the TBR I never went on. Now I need to catch up plus read this new one. Great review!

    • I think Big Sky works fine as a stand alone though of course if you want to read the earlier ones, don’t let me stop you! The more people in the Brodie fan club, the better…

  12. This sounds great! I love the Jackson Brodie series, but still haven’t read the fourth book which I would like to read before starting this one. It’s good to know that you enjoyed it so much.

  13. So glad this one hit the spot, Karen.

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