Sunday, 8 May 2011

"Emotionally Weird," by Kate Atkinson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A combination of reading "Emotionally Weird," set in Dundee University, and listening to the audiobook of Deborah Harkness' "A Discovery of Witches"(Oxford) is making me feel nostalgic for university and academia. It has to be said, however, that neither book is really typical of my time at university. I tended to write essays, unlike Effie, the protagonist and narrator of "Emotionally Weird," who rarely hands in any work. And I'm fairly sure that the university that I went to wasn't populated with vampires, witches and demons like the Oxford of Deborah Harkness' imagination.

This was my first Kate Atkinson book. I have friends who like her books, but I'd never tried one - so, I put out the question to my Facebook friends to find out where I should start. "Emotionally Weird" didn't even get a mention, but fate, conspiring with other library users who had borrowed all other Kate Atkinson books, meant that this was my first experience of Kate Atkinson. Usually when I write a review I try to have the book by me for reference. Another library user has confounded me by reserving this book, so I am writing this freefall without a net.

The heroine and narrator of "Emotionally Weird," is Effie, a student of literature at Dundee University. Effie is directionless, perpetually being chased to hand in essays that she has not yet written, and she has slipped into an accidental relationship with a stoner called Bob. Effie is telling her story to Nora, her mother, in their remote, derelict family home in Scotland. Effie's story is detailed, digressive and loaded with colourful peripheral characters; Nora is a more reluctant and sparse storyteller as Effie tries to coax her into reciprocating by telling her their family history. Nora is as much a reluctant listener as storyteller, interjecting critical comments on style and structure into the narrative, and even going to bed at one point to let the story carry on without her audience.

Reading "Emotionally Weird," in the best possible way, reminded me how much I enjoyed reading Graham Swift's "Waterland" when at university. Both novels are pre-occupied with the storytelling impulse and with history. Where Graham Swift grapples with the idea that history is nearly always his-story and not her-story, "Emotionally Weird" is very much her-story. Kate Atkinson's narrative is rounded, abundant with fertile detail. Unlike a historical text which tries to filter out extraneous detail to present a cause and effect narrative, Kate Atkinson's novel overflows with the minutiae of life and with supporting characters who may or may not prove to be significant. Like Effie's life, her narrative sometimes seems to lack purpose and focus, following a picaresque path before Nora finally reveals the family secrets to Effie.

I enjoyed the fun that Kate Atkinson has with genre. The main thrust of the story is interspersed with snippets of writing from Effie's creative writing class. Effie herself is writing a crime novel - one of the more debased and disreputable genres, according to her disapproving creative writing lecturer - and there are substantial extracts from her creative writing project. There are also short segments from the sub Lord of the Rings fantasy magnum opus being written by another member of the creative writing group, as well as from the interminable, pretentious postmodern tome being written by one of the university lecturers. The segments from Effie's crime novel are deliberately hokey in a way that implies that Kate Atkinson knows the genre well, and there is fondness in her mockery of its tropes and cliches.

Like my experience of recently discovering Graham Greene, it baffles me that if has taken me so long to get around to reading a Kate Atkinson novel. I liked the richness of her writing - which, to my shame, sometimes had me reaching for a dictionary - and the eccentricity of her characters. In her narrative words have a life of their own, spilling out and escaping. Words can prise themselves off the page, "hanging around like bored flies." Kate Atkinson's self-aware writing style embraces the playful side of postmodern writing. I definitely want to seek out more of her books and, as I too enjoy the crime genre, I plan to read her Jackson Brodie novels, and - like the good little book geek I am - read them in order.

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