When is a crime novel not a crime novel? Kate Atkinson's latest book begins with a brutal murder and features abductions, arson and actual bodily harm, but it's no airport thriller – instead, an intricately crafted tale of coincidence and fate, love and longing. From the get-go, Atkinson's pitch-perfect ear for dialogue is apparent, as she tells the story of a mother and her young children out for a doomed walk in the sun-blasted countryside.
Six-year-old Joanna Mason absorbs her mother's pithy descriptions of rural life in a "country fucking idyll" imposed by the feckless and unfaithful Mr Mason. But her understanding of her world is shattered as her mother and siblings are attacked and killed by a stranger, leaving Joanna as the only one to escape. Thirty years later, Dr Joanna Mason's life has all the trappings of success – good career, a big house in Edinburgh, an adored baby boy. But with the killer set for release, Joanna vanishes, and only the baby's nanny, 16-year-old orphan Reggie Chase, seems concerned. If there's one thing that the wonderful Reggie does well – apart from cherishing her mother's memory and learning Latin – it's worrying about her employer, the bright spot in an otherwise bleak existence.
As Reggie frets about Joanna, ex-police inspector Jackson Brodie, familiar from two previous novels, is pondering the bonds of parental and romantic love. He feels his success in both is limited but his musings are cut short by a rail crash that shapes (but never overwhelms) the course of the book. The final main player is the fabulously fiery policewoman Louise Monroe, who is on the hunt for a missing murderer by day and chafing against the bonds of married life by night. Her unresolved history with Brodie comes to the fore as Atkinson's finely-balanced plotting sees them cross paths again.
Through the skilfully explored inner worlds of her characters, Atkinson examines how the past can affect the future, and how the choices we make have long-lasting implications. She handles cataclysmic events – a fatal train crash, abduction, possible suicide – with a light touch. The fast pace, while exhilarating, is never exhausting. As in the best crime fiction, dramatic events and unexpected twists abound, but Atkinson subverts the genre by refusing to neatly tie up every thread. And while there is plenty of blood and bitterness, redemption and resolve are well represented too. Good news all round.