Started Early, Took My Dog

By KATE ATKINSON

Started Early, TookMy Dog is Kate Atkinson’s seventh noveland the fourth to star private eye Jackson Brodie, survivor of a tragicchildhood and much hapless love; seeker of lost people; and champion of thepowerless. Melancholy, rueful, and obstinate, Jackson is one of the mostappealing sleuths ever to tread the pages of a crime thriller, an appeal nowsharpened by his new-found affinity for Emily Dickinson and heightened beyondall resisting by his having acquired a dog. Rescued by Jackson from an abusive yobbo,it is a little terrier, exuberant and joyously doggy one moment, thoughtful andattentive the next.

Turning from this excellentcreature to the plot we find a superbly ingenious construction composed of themeshed repercussions of hidden crimes and cruelties, and a gradually revealedarabesque of intertwined lives. The book begins in 1975 in Leeds with thediscovery of a starving child and the body of a murdered woman in a lockedapartment. Called to the scene is Tracy Waterman, a solidly built policewoman,and her partner, Ken Arkwright, “a stout white Yorkshireman with a heartof lard.” But no sooner is this event introduced, than the action sheersoff, first to Jackson finishing off his last caper six months ago, and then onto the present where we find Tracy Waterman again, now in her 50s, retired fromthe police force and working as head of security at a down-market shoppingmall. Surveying the commercialized ugliness of the place and the unhappy peoplewho frequent it, she reflects, “All human life was here. Britain—shopliftingcapital of Europe.”

Tracy’sthwarted maternal instincts come to a boil as she observes an enraged woman,Kelly Cross, “prostitute, druggie, thief, all-around pikey,” yellinginto a cell phone while dragging a screaming little girl along at brutal speed.Inundated by “despair and frustration as she contemplated the blank butalready soiled canvas of the kid’s future,” Tracy is seized by an impulse.”One moment she was…contemplating the human wreckage that was Kelly Cross,the next she was saying, ‘How much?’” She flashes 3,000 euros she has justwithdrawn from the bank. It’s enough for Kelly, who grabs the money and dropsthe girl’s hand. Tracy has just bought a child.

Tracy andher new charge set off in search of a new life—pursued, soon enough, bymysterious trackers with, it would seem, evil intentions. So begins oneextraordinary strain of the story. Another proceeds from the addled point ofview of Tilly, a superannuated actress drifting in and out of senility. She hasbeen playing the mother of the macho star of a TV soap opera, a role created tomake the man seem “more human.”  But she has recently learned that her character is going tobe killed off very soon, presumably because she can’t get her lines down. Thisis only the beginning of the woes that fill Tilly’s old head, all of themmerging together, impressionistically, almost poetically, in her befuddlement.

The third major strand of the storyproceeds from Brodie’s point of view as he pursues a new assignment: findingthe natural parents of a woman living in New Zealand who was adopted in Englandas a child. Although a few other characters contribute threads of consciousnessto the narrative, Tracy’s, Tilly’s, and Jackson’s points of view carry thestory along, each accompanied by tart observations on the degraded condition ofEngland and nostalgic laments for her vanished past: “No more half-day closing,” reflects Tilly, contemplatingthe tawdry activity of the shopping mall through which Kelly is dragging herchild. “Everything open all the time now, getting and spending we laywaste our powers. And where had all the money gone? You go to sleep living in aprosperous country and you wake up in a poor one, how did that happen?”

The novelis immensely exciting and very funny, even with all the sadness and badness itencompasses; and it is supremely devious in execution. Atkinson deploys pastand present storylines in a pincer movement, marshalling seeminglymiscellaneous actions and events into a coherent picture, one in which eachcharacter plays an often unwitting part. Atkinson really has no peer in thedeftness with which she pulls this off; and it is a trick that goes beyondtechnique. As characters belonging to one narrative strand suddenly pop up inanother, a surreal mood creeps into the novel. Indeed, these surpriseinvolvements and coincidences begin to seem like evidence of an underlyingcurrent in the world, of some invisible struggle between good and evil, one inwhich the innocent are at once the most vulnerable and the most potent. Thismood, which has a tincture of Arthurian romance about it, is an amalgam ofwhimsy and irony, and is uniquely Atkinson’s.

The result is an intoxicating read. As the suspense and actionintensify, as everything and everyone come hurtling together in the last pages,this particular reader was completely swept away by an exhilarating mix ofdread and hilarity.

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