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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 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 playful 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 

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.

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