Book review / Black forest gateau

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
The opening of Kate Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, echoed Tristram Shandy. Her second begins "Call me Isobel ..." Such devices can be seen as chutzpah or intertextuality, according to taste. My own feeling was - why shouldn't she? Intertextual references litter the pages of this vivid and intriguing novel - to Shakespeare especially. This can be a heavy-handed method - a right sinker, indeed - but not here.

Kate Atkinson's touch is deft, and the story fizzes and crackles along with so many twists and turns that it is well able to carry the freight of Shakespearean allusion and the airy references to higher physics which are integral to the content.

This is a novel about time. The space-time continuum, worm-holes in space, wrinkles in time - all those unimaginable concepts that lend themselves so nicely to fictional exploration. The past in the present is the theme here: hardly a new one, but seldom done with more panache or originality.

As in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the central matter is the dire family secret which preys upon childhood. Isobel and her brother Charles, are mewed up in Arden, the sepulchral suburban home in which they are reared by their dire aunt Vinny after the apparent death of their father and disappearance of the mother Eliza, for whom they pathetically yearn.

What happened to Eliza - the how and the why - are the threads which weave in and out of a craftily constructed narrative that takes every possible liberty with sequential tale-telling. The novel's structure reflects the slippery nature of time. Hints and clues of what will happen, or may have happened, are cunningly scattered - unobtrusive at the moment but rearing their heads in retrospect. A broken-heeled shoe found by the children in dreadful aunt Vinny's wardrobe seems to have been Eliza's and strikes a sinister chord; Charles's red hair reflects neither parent; and the adults flinch at certain references which ring alarm bells in the reader's head, but to which the children are oblivious.

The suburb in which Arden stands is built on the site of ancient woodland, which itself descends from the primeval forest. The streets are named after treesand the forest theme pervades the book. The crucial scene after which Eliza is seen no more takes place during a family picnic in nearby Boscrambe Wood, all that is left of the ancient woodland. And the family itself is the surviving stock of the Fairfaxes, who built their Elizabethan manor in the woods and whose fortunes subsequently declined to the proprietorship of the high-street grocery.

This sounds like a swerve into Mills & Boon territory. Never fear - if so, it is all a part of the deliberate and larky referential style. At one point, Isobel turns into a tree when pursued by a posse of drunken yobs. Or she may have done - because Isobel is an unreliable witness, and no wonder, given her traumatic youth. She finds herself periodically swept into time-warps and walks into a vanished inn or contemplates a former incarnation of her aunt in a bedroom at Arden. She is caught up in a re-running of a single day in which events turn out differently each time, a motif that raises the fashionable concept of alternative universes. Have I stepped into the same river twice? she wonders - overtaken again by intertextuality.

Isobel's is the narrative voice - an acerbic, knowing voice, except that what she doesn't know is the awful truth of adult deceit. But there is also a detached voice which fills us in on events about which Isobel cannot know. Plenty of liberties are taken with fictional method. On the whole it works, except for a chunk of medieval fantasy at the end.

As a participant character Isobel rather fades into the background. Kate Atkinson is excellent at subsidiary figures, ranging from devastating vignettes to the Greek chorus of the fearful Baxter family next door, where wife-battering and incest flourish. The strength of this clever, adventurous novel lies in its careful meshing of a compelling story with excursions into fantasy, experiment and outrageous grand guignol. It's something of a tour de force.