Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books are a very distinctive kind of fiction. They are told with beautiful language, an innovative structure, wit, compassion and an understanding of moral frailty. They are filled with real people, described in ways that capture their individuality while setting them in a closely observed and finally nuanced landscape of class and power. The plots wrap themselves around something dark slithering its ways through the corrupt heart of English power and privilege. This darkness is challenged by Jackson Brodie: romantic pragmatist, ex-soldier, ex-policeman, ex-husband and everyday protector of the weak. Yet Jackson is not the true centre of the books. That place is held by the women who, in their different ways, decline to be victims and who do whatever is necessary to fight their way back to safety.
"Big Sky" like the last Jackson Brodie novel, "Started Early. Took My Dog" is breathtakingly good.
In the nine years since the last novel, Jackson has built a more stable life. His son is now a teenager. He has a strong relationship of the she's-my-ex-and-my-best-friend type. Hers is the voice he most often hears in his head when he's critiquing his own behaviour. He's now a private investigator in Yorkshire, mostly investigating cheating spouses.
The plot revolves around two current stains on English society, the institutionalisation of the sexual abuse of children by the powerful and the growing volume of foreign women being sold into sexual slavery. Both of those things are repellant and widespread. Take a look at the reports from the IICSA to see how well-organised the sexual abuse of children is. Visit the website of The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, established by the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and see the estimates that there are at least 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK. What Kate Atkinson does in "Big Sky" is to tell the story of the women and children and the men who abuse them in a way that makes it real without descending into voyeurism.
She achieves this partly by the people-centric structure of the story. Instead of pursuing a plot or a theme, Kate Atkinson follows a path of "serial immersion" dropping us into the minds of one character after another. In the beginning, we don't know the role of the people in the story or how they relate to each other. There isn't a central puzzle that they're all working to solve or to hide. Instead, we have the overlapping lives of people, good, bad, strong, weak, none of whom see the whole story and each of whom takes decisions that affect everyone else.
Here's an example. Chapter four opens with three men playing golf. We don't know who they are or how they relate to the story but we quickly find ourselves immersed in the world view of Vince, the most junior member of the trio:
There were different categories of friends, in Vince's opinion: golf friends, work friends, old school friends, shipboard friends, He'd been on a Mediterranean cruise a few years ago with Wendy, his about to be ex-wife, but Friend friends were harder to come by. Andy and Tommy were golf friends. Not to each other. With each other, they were friend friends. They'd known each other for years and had a relationship so tight that Vince always felt he was on the outside of something when he was with them. Not that he could put his finger on what it was her was excluded from exactly. He wondered sometimes if it wasn't so much that Tommy and Andy shared a secret so much as they liked to make him think they shared a secret. Men never really left the snigger of the schoolyard, they just grew bigger. That was his wife's opinion anyway, soon to be ex-wife.
Vince's taxonomy of friends tells us a great deal about him. It's more than an idle conceit. It's how he structures his life. It drives his actions and it will emerge again later when things turn nasty. His references to his soon to be ex-wife show his as nice but weak. His wife's voice is still in his head and he can't quite accept the truth that Wendy will no longer be his wife. The "Men never really leave the snigger of the schoolyard, they just grow bigger" comment, will be echoed by other female voices in the heads of other men as the book goes on.
The serial immersions mean that our understanding of the people comes ahead of and informs our understanding of the plot. This is what keeps the book human, driving anger at the abuse, compassion for the abused and insight into the abusers that is personal rather than abstract.
As this story is woven, Jackson Brodie is the warp, the static frame, around which the weft of the other characters shuttle to create the pattern. Jackson is the cowboy who thinks he's a sheriff and sometimes he is. He wants to do the right thing although he often can't work out what that is. His character is beautifully crafted. The times spent immersed in Jackson were the ones I enjoyed most. Here's an example of Jackson's interior monologue as he runs through a forest. He realises that he can't identify any tree except the oaks and even then only because they have funny shaped leave so he comes up with the idea that:
Somebody should invent a Shazam for trees and plants. They probably had. ¨Gap in the market' Jackson thought. Quite a niche market though. National Trust members mostly: middle-class, middle-income, the frail and over-burdened backbone of England. The kind of people who owned Labradors listened to "The Archers" and couldn't abide Reality TV. 'Me' Jackson thought, even if the Labrador was on loan and he didn't actually listen to "The Archers".
I was smiling as I listened to this. Like Jackson, I grew up in a working-class home and yet the National Trust / Labrador / Archers trinity is one I've worshipped at and I think Reality TV is an attack on the concept of truth. I like Jackson's ability to see these things and I like that he's constantly reviewing his place and the world, usually guided by the voices of women he has known. He provides a context that says that we ought to be aware of who we are and to own the decisions that we take.
The underlying emotion driving the book is deep anger at the long-term, consequence-free, systematic sexual abuse of women by rich and powerful men. Yet it is not an angry book. This is a book in which humanity and humour are synonymous. The women are shown as people who survive and take their revenge when they can. The book itself is a form of Romance, in the old sense of that word. It's a mystery and a quest. The heroes and heroines are brave and live to their values. There is also a sense of fate bringing together the people in whose minds we've been immersed and we trust that somehow they will converge and good will win through.
I listened to the audiobook which is expertly narrated by Jacob Issacs, who played Jackson Brodie in the TV series based on the books. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.