Train Wrecks

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, September 19, 2008

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?

By Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown. 388 pp. $24.99

Thank God, in these hard times, for a cheerful, ghoulish, gory book like this. Isn't the main point of popular fiction to assure us that no matter how god-awful things appear to be, no matter how many ravening wolves rake their claws across our flimsy front doors, everything is going to turn out okay? That's why they call it fiction, because you can trust -- usually -- that the author, after putting the reader through hell of one kind or another, will deliver up the consolation of a happy ending.

Kate Atkinson gives us three main characters here, each having gone through -- or enduring right now -- a particularly ghastly version of living hell. The first, Joanna Hunter, nee Mason, was just a little girl 30 years ago, slogging along a country lane in Devon, England, with her mother, older sister and baby brother, burdened with groceries. Her father already had left the family and taken the car with him; he was an unsuccessful novelist who claimed that his wife and children were interfering with his creative process. You'd think that would be bad enough, but then a stranger appeared from nowhere and sliced the whole lot of them into human strip steak, except for Joanna, who ran for her life and miraculously escaped. She has grown up to be a doctor with a beautiful house, a fairly iffy husband and a baby she loves beyond words, but her world is a house of cards, and she knows it. Naturally, prison authorities are releasing the coldblooded killer for good behavior.

The second main character, Reggie, has had an even unhappier life. At the age of 16, she lives alone in a wretched tenement, subsisting on chocolate bars and potato chips. Her mother, who loved her, drowned while on vacation with a dreadful boyfriend. Her brother is a dope-dealing sociopath who rarely comes around. She's a brilliant student who's had to quit school but is being tutored by an eccentric ex-professor with a brain tumor. Reggie's so alone! But luckily she's gotten a part-time job as mother's helper for Dr. Joanna Hunter, and she loves that little baby almost as much as its mother does. She doesn't tell her employer that her mother is dead. She intuits that the doctor's lovely house and orderly life hide something squalid, but she's too busy withholding the details of her own existence to figure out what's going on. Once in a while, from the well-lit kitchen where she spends much of her time, Reggie will catch a shadowy glimpse of something ominous skittering across the dark meadow out back.

The third character here is one Atkinson readers will be familiar with: ex-police detective Jackson Brodie, who when we first see him is taking a train in the wrong direction. Brodie is so desperate for a family that he's been on a futile, quixotic outing to snatch a strand of his ex-girlfriend's son's hair, hoping to prove (by DNA test) that the kid is his own. (That's when he gets mixed up and takes the wrong train, which turns out to be an almost fatal move, because the eccentric ex-professor with the brain tumor has managed to park her car on those very tracks.)

At the time of the crash, Reggie, only a few blocks away, rushes to the scene and rescues Brodie, who by this time, however, is unknowingly carrying the identification cards of the nefarious killer of Dr. Hunter's family in his pocket. This means the killer is at large, posing as Brodie. Meanwhile, Reggie's pathetic apartment is pillaged and her life threatened by a person or persons who can't spell. And suddenly Dr. Hunter's iffy husband begins to look a good deal iffier.

Enter Detective Police Inspector Louise Monroe, who leaves the reader to ponder how she ever attained her high bureaucratic position, because besides being crabby, resentful and generally ill-tempered, she wouldn't know a corpse if it rose up and punched her in the face. It is the novel's chief conceit that Reggie discovers and recognizes most of the evidence here, waves it in front of Louise Monroe, who adamantly denies there's anything bad happening (although I do think a missing baby's blankie, spotted with blood, might provide at least a hint). But there's no point in underestimating the stupidity of the police in stories like these, so why grumble? This is a grand mystery, with plenty of misdeeds and overwrought coincidences, as well as quotes from Scots ballads, old nursery rhymes and the classics, so you can feel edified while being creeped out -- as you wait for that happy ending we all long for, and think we deserve.

Sunday in Book World

· Dennis Lehane writes an ambitious historical novel.

· Robert Olen Butler's life changes with a dream.

· The fight for African American rights after the Civil War.

· Tragic stories from the Mormon West.

· Plus, where to go and whom to see at the National Book Festival.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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