Doubleday Â£12.99 282pp
Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
Carol Birch finds mirth among the myths in these updated tales from the Ancient World
Saturday 02 November 2002
Where does ancient mythology fit into modern life? Is it confined to the stories we read, Disney's occasional gross foray, our Larousse encyclopaedias? Or can myth still break through, alive and well, hissing its Medusa breath and impregnating unsuspecting mortal women with litters of semi-divine hybrids? Again, if myths are going to intrude in graphic ways on our tediously familiar existences, why would we get those of Greece, Rome and Egypt? Why not those indigenous myths of these islands?
Maybe I'm being pedantic, but Kate Atkinson's new collection of 12 short stories mystifies me in a way she probably did not intend. This is definitely a concept album, interlinked by a wide net of connecting lives and situations à la Altman's Short Cuts. The link is classical myth. Spot the reference: Eos, Hera, the chariot of Hades. An office worker's head begins to hiss, a bed of snakes. The sensible leather boots of unconventional nanny Missy (Artemis; get it?) turn into silver sandals, while a quiver of silver arrows sprouts on her back. All this comes alongside bang-on contemporary references, from Slipknot to pot noodle to White Teeth. This is now. It is also, in spite of the title, clearly the end of the world, the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, and the meeting-point of all realities.
It's very clever, and Kate Atkinson is an erudite and interesting writer with a lovely turn of phrase. However, there are not many more than three or four good stories. In "Dissonance" and "Wedding Favours", we cringe along with the dysfunctional family, all ageing Sixties lefties and arrogant, foul-smelling kids.
"Sheer Big Waste of Love", the tale of Addison Fox, son of a prostitute dying of cancer, achieves rare moments of subtle poignancy and contains some typically resonant Atkinson prose that skilfully conjures mood and character: "The steel tips of his mother's stiletto heels made a brutish noise on the street ... Addison could remember his mother's shoes long after he'd forgotten her face."
Atkinson has a love of words and takes delight in the sheer manipulation of them, but mostly these are idea-oriented stories that sacrifice warmth and fail to stick. There is an overload of cross-referencing and the multitudinous cast are, for the most part, so unmemorable that you keep coming over names of people you know you've met before, but can't put an identity to.
Those that do jump out from the crowd do so mostly because they are energetic comic stereotypes. The awful Simon of "Dissonance", pizza-faced and revolting, is Kevin the Teenager. His sister is the pristine Rebecca.
Here she is, contemplating her mother's underwear: "everything slightly grey and stretched, the elastic gone in the M&S sports bras she wore, even though she was the least sporty person Rebecca could think of."
Atkinson is great at this kind of observation, though she can fall over into cliché: Romney Wright, pop star's ex-wife, big boobs, thick as two short planks; Beardy Brian, social worker, beer belly ("oh, sorry, real ale belly"), blathering about ring-fencing and media studies. No doubt he also wears his sandals over his socks.
Some of this is great fun. If you are drawn to myths, it offers nothing more than a kind of recognition-fest. If you're not, references to Selene driving "her exhausted horses, gleaming with silvery sweat, the last few paces of the night" could get irritating.
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