A past with no groan unturned

FICTION: HUMAN CROQUET by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday pounds 15.99

Kate Atkinson's second novel, the successor to her Whitbread Award- winning debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is another foray into the world of domestic gothic, with a first-person young-girl narrator, but this time set in 1960 with lapses and relapses into the recent and distant past. Isobel Fairfax wakes in the family home, "Arden", on her 16th birthday, haunted by a melancholy scent of "nicotine, Arpege and sex". She gradually recognises this as the perfume of her mother Eliza, the reason for whose sudden disappearance years earlier forms the powerful enigma at the heart of the story.

It is easy to see how the sophisticated and exotic Eliza might have felt out of place in the Fairfax household: they are a family of provincial grocers, joyless, unimaginative and full of good, solid English food. The household is presented in a series of relentlessly camped-up comic vignettes: monomaniac grandmother Charlotte, mad Vinny, "the Aunt from Hell", sad Gordon, the melancholic father of Isobel and her older brother Charles, a stunted, spotty 18-year-old obsessed by the absence of his mother and the existence of alien life-forms. Later additions to the cast include a lecherous lodger (who turns into a fly), Gordon's lumpish second wife, Debbie, an abandoned baby and the ghost of Shakespeare, as well as a plentiful cast of psychopathic neighbours and oddball teenagers, and if you think this sounds as if the novel is in danger of getting out of control at several points, you could be right.

"Call me Isobel," the book begins, "(It's my name)"; and for a good while it's clear that Kate Atkinson means to leave no joke un-made, in a style so full of tricks and contrivances that it seems like cheating, and possibly not too difficult to write. Every character has a quirk which is played on relentlessly, and there are so many "nice touches" that one begins to feel groped. The novel is packed with matter, much of it highly entertaining (why is a catalogue of trees and an account of photosynthesis interesting in a novel but not in a science textbook?), but it doesn't seem to want to tell us anything important, perhaps adhering too closely to the rules of "Human Croquet" itself, which, a postscript informs us, "provides little exercise, but plenty of laughter".

But "Arden" is built on the site of Fairfax Manor, in the heart of an ancient forest, and is haunted by a past which starts to draw Isobel back into itself. Things begin to happen twice, and differently; what might have been cloaking the possibility of ever finding out what was. This is where the novel begins to be interestingly confusing, and the device of time-warping, at first simply devious, is taken very much further than the reader anticipates, beyond the point at which it appears fanciful and into a region where all sorts of possibilities open up. The sections of flashback (or not, as the case may be) to blitzed London, or Fairfax Manor in Elizabethan times, or the turn-of-the-century household of Sir Edward de Breville, move the book onto a different plane, and the switch from first- to third-person narrator admits a sort of subtlety that seems to have been almost wilfully kept at bay elsewhere (an example is the section in which Gordon's relationship with his mother is defined by his new-found sensuality with his wife). Even mad Aunt Vinny, the milch- cow for black humour, has her moment of release, when glimpsed in a youth that "smells of lavender and roast beef and gleams with modest wealth".

Once you've given up trying to follow the real plot - if there is one - the problem of the book having no message becomes irrelevant; the author makes you attend to her contradictory stories for their own sake. "How is an imagined Christmas different from a remembered one?" Isobel asks in the middle of a (possible) fantasy about what life might have been like if her mother hadn't vanished. If we can imagine doing things (such as losing our virginity to Shakespeare: "Spaniel eyes and chestnut hair. Not yet bald, slightly greasy. Leather boots (...) He tastes of cloves") just how sure can we be that they haven't happened?

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada