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Author Biography: Kate Atkinson is the author of Human Croquet and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Sends jolts of pleasure off the page… Atkinson’s funniest foray yet… a work of Dickensian or even Shakespearean plenty.”
– The Scotsman
“Funny, bold and memorable.”
– The Times
A MONDAY MORNING AND MY DREAMS WERE INTERRUPTED AT SOME unearthly hour by the doorbell ringing with a shrill urgency that implied death, tragedy or a sudden, unexpected inheritance. It was none of those things (not yet anyway), it was Terri. It was only seven o'clock and it seemed likely therefore that rather than being up early she hadn't actually been to bed at all.
Small and thin, Terri was dressed, as usual, in the manner of a deranged Victorian governess. She had the pale pallor of a three-day-old corpse on her cheek and, despite the dark on the unlit stair, was wearing Wayfarer Ray-Bans.
Although I had opened the door, Terri's finger remained on the doorbell, as if she had been struck by rigor morris while pressing it. I forcibly removed the finger, almost having to break it in the process. She held out a hand, palm up, and said, `Give me your George Eliot essay,' her face as expressionless as an assassin's.
`Or what — die?'
`Fuck off,' she said succinctly and lit up a cigarette in the manner of a film noir villainess. I shut the door on her and went back to bed and the warm, slack body of Bob with whom I lived in urban squalor in a festering tenement attic in Paton's Lane, former residence of Dundee's reviled yet noble-hearted poet, William Topaz McGonagall. Bob rolled over and muttered some of his usual sleep gibberish (`The leopard's going to miss the train!' `Got to find that radish,' and so on).
Bob, known by some people as `Magic Bob', but for reasons which were obscure and not basedon any sleight-of-hand on Bob's part, was in fact an unmagic Essex boy, Ilford born and bred, although when he remembered, he affected a monotonous, vaguely northern accent to give himself more credibility with his peers.
Like me, Bob was a student at Dundee University but said that if he had been in charge of the university he would have thrown himself out. He seldom handed in an essay and considered it a point of honour never to go to a lecture and instead lived the slow life of a nocturnal sloth, smoking dope, watching television and listening to Led Zeppelin on his headphones.
Bob had recently discovered that he was in his final year of university, he had already repeated second year twice — a university record — and for a long time had presumed that somehow he would remain a student for ever, a misconception that had only recently been cleared up. He was supposed to be studying for a joint degree in English and Philosophy. If people asked him what his degree was in he always said `Joints,' which he thought was a brilliant joke. Bob's sense of humour, such as it was, had been developed by the Goons and honed by The Monkees. Bob's screen hero was Mickey Dolenz, right back to Mickey's early days as Corky in Circus Boy.
Bob was an unreconstructed kind of person, his other hero was Fritz the Cat and he had a complete lack of interest in anything that involved a sustained attention span. Nor was he political in any way, despite the three unopened volumes of Das Kapital on his bookshelf — which he never could explain, although he had a vague memory of joining a radical Marxist splinter group after seeing If at the cinema. He was prone to the usual obsessions and delusions of boys his age — the Klingons, for example, were as real for Bob as the French or the Germans, more real certainly than, say, Luxemburgers.
The doorbell rang again, less insistently this time, and when I opened the door Terri was still there. `Let me in,' she said weakly. `I think I've got frostbite.'
Terri was a little mid-western princess, a cheerleader gone bad. She may have once had corn-fed kin back in the heartland (although it was easier to imagine her being hatched in the nest of a prehistoric bird) but in time they had all either died or abandoned her. Her father, an executive with Ford, had enrolled her in an English Quaker boarding-school during a brief secondment to Britain and had carelessly left her there on his return to Michigan.
Terri liked to keep her ethnic origins chameleon, sometimes hinting at Italian, sometimes pogrom-fleeing Russian, a touch of the Orient, a hint of the Hebrew. Only I knew the dull mongrel mix of Irish navvies, Dutch dairymen and Belgian coalminers who by mere genetic chance had given her the appearance of an exotic houri or a handmaiden of Poe. We were the best of friends, we were the worst of friends. We were the sisters we'd never had. I felt sorry for someone so at odds with the mainstream of humanity. Sometimes I wondered if my role in Terri's life wasn't to mediate between her and the living, like a vampire's assistant.
Although she hated staying in it, Terri did have her own ruffled lair in Cleghorn Street — an unappealing cold-water flat that wasn't good for much other than storing her coffin of earth. In a rare fit of activity she had painted it purple throughout, a colour-scheme that did nothing to alleviate her own darkness. At least Terri, unlike myself, had worked out her future destiny — she was going to marry a very old, very rich man and then `screw him to death'. She wouldn't be the first, but I doubted whether she would find a suitable candidate in Dundee.
I fumbled around in the dark for a candle. We were in the midst of a discontented winter of strikes and three-day weeks which meant there was no electricity this morning. If I had been capable of forethought, which I feared I never would be, I would have bought a torch by now. I would also have managed to acquire a Thermos flask. And a hot-water bottle. And batteries. I wondered how many three-day weeks it would take before civilization began to break down. Sooner for some than others, I supposed.
From the window I could see that across the water in Fife they had electricity. The houses of Newport and Wormit were studded with cheerful lights as more purposeful people than us embarked on their day. If it had been daylight we would have had a magnificent view of the rail bridge and its freight of trains, the black iron lacework curving lazily across a Tay that was sometimes silvery, often not, and which in today's dark dawnlight was like a ribbon of tar running past the city.
In the bedroom, Bob was still fast asleep. In these night-like days of hibernation his waking hours were even more severely curtailed than usual.
`The butterfly's got the cornflakes,' a sleepfaring Bob warned us in a loud voice.
`I don't know what you see in him,' Terri said.
`Neither do I,' I said gloomily.
It couldn't have been his looks that attracted me, as Bob looked much like everyone else did — the Zapata moustache, the gold hoop earring, the greasy Royalist locks curling over badly deported shoulders. He looked, if anything, like a tramp — an impression reinforced by the second-hand army boots and the oversized air-force greatcoat he habitually wore.
Bob had recently discovered the meaning of life, a discovery that seemed to have made no difference whatsoever to his everyday existence.
I met Bob the first week I was at university. I was already eighteen years old and thought that I could discern a certain librarian caste to my features and was afraid I would end up a lonely figure, forever wandering a spinster wasteland, and it was mere chance that Bob was the first person to cross my path the morning I decided to lose my virginity.
I met him when he ran me over. Bob was on a bicycle and I was on a pavement, which perhaps gives an indication of whose fault the accident was. I broke my wrist (or rather, Bob broke my wrist), and the exciting combination of circumstances — drama, blood and a brown-eyed man — all served to make me think that destiny had spoken and therefore I should listen.
Bob hit me because he swerved to miss a dog. The man who would sooner run over a woman than a dog introduced himself by bending over me where I lay on the pavement, staring at me in amazement, as if he'd never seen a woman before, and saying, `Wow, what a bummer.'
The dog came out of the accident unscathed, if a little surprised, and was returned to its tearful owner. Bob rode to the Dundee Royal Infirmary in the ambulance with me and had to be physically stopped from inhaling the gas and air.
Terri had finally taken her sunglasses off after tripping over Bob's boots left carelessly in the middle of the floor. There were many drawbacks to living with Bob, not the least of which was the way he created a mysterious amount of self-replicating debris that constantly threatened to engulf him.
With no power and the cupboard bare, we had to imagine breakfast. Hot chocolate and cinnamon toast for Terri, while I preferred Braithwaites' `Household' blend tea with one of Cuthbert's wellfired white rolls, its outside crisp and blackened, its inside filled with doughy white air. We remained hungry, however, for you cannot really eat your own words.
`Well, at least being up at this hour means we'll make it to Archie's tutorial on time for once,' I said, without any great enthusiasm, but when I looked at Terri closely I realized she had fallen asleep. She should take more care, she had just the kind of sluggish metabolism that gets people buried alive in family crypts and glass coffins. In some ways (but not in others) Terri would have made the perfect wife for Bob — they could have simply slept their way through married life. Rip van Winkle and Duchess Anaesthesia, the lost, sleepy daughter of the Romanovs.
I gave her a little pinch and said, `You know you shouldn't—' but then I came under the sleep spell as well.
Sometimes I wondered if we weren't all unwittingly taking part in drug trials being conducted covertly by a pharmaceutical company, perhaps for a drug with the opposite effects of speed. They could just call it Slow when it hit the market. Perhaps that was who was watching me — an undercover research assistant observing `the effects of Slow on his unsuspecting guinea-pig. Because I was sure someone was watching me. (`Well, you know what they say,' Bob said, in what I think was a misguided effort to comfort me, `just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get you.')
For several days now I had been aware of the unseen eyes on me, of the inaudible feet dogging my every footstep. I hoped it was merely the projection of a heated imagination rather than the beginnings of some paranoid delusional breakdown that would end on a locked ward in Lift, the village where the local mental hospital was located. (`Take more drugs,' was the advice of Bob's best friend, Shug.)
I woke up with a jolt. My head had been pillowed uncomfortably on the edge of Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the book had left a painful gouge in my cheek. Terri was making little whimpering noises, dreaming about chasing rabbits again.
I shook her awake, `Come on, we're going to be late.'
My new resolution, rather late in my final year I realized, was to attend all the lectures, tutorials and seminars that I was supposed to. This was in a vain bid to curry favour with as many of the English department staff as possible because I was now so behind with my work that it was becoming increasingly unlikely that I would even be able to sit my degree, let alone pass it. I didn't understand how I'd got so behind with everything, especially when I was trying so hard to keep up.
Terri was even more behind than I was, if that was possible. The George Eliot essay (`Middlemarch is a treasure house of detail, but an indifferent whole.' Can Middlemarch be defended against this criticism by Henry James?) was just one of the many pieces of work that we hadn't managed to do.
I dressed as if for a polar expedition in as many clothes as I could find — woollen tights, a long needlecord pinafore dress, several reject men's golfing sweaters that had been acquired in a St Andrews Woollen Mill sale, scarf, gloves, knitted hat, and, lastly, an old beaver coat, bought for ten shillings in the pawn shop at the West. Port, a coat that still had a comforting old lady smell of camphor and violet cachous about it.
`Ontological proof,' Bob shouted mysteriously in his sleep — a concept he wouldn't even know the meaning of if he was awake.
Terri grimaced and replaced her sunglasses and pulled on a black beret so that now she looked like a deranged governess engaged in guerrilla warfare. A Weathergirl.
`Let's do it,' she said, and we slipped out into the shock of a morning that crackled with cold so that every time we spoke our breath came out in cold white clouds like the speech bubbles in the Beano. We trudged up Paton's Lane and as we turned onto the Perth Road, the invisible, ever-watchful pair of eyes monitored our progress.
`Maybe it's the eye of God,' Terri said. I was sure God, if he existed at all, which was highly unlikely, would have better things to do with his time than watch me.
`Maybe he doesn't,' Terri said. `Maybe he's like a really ... trivial guy. Who knows?' Who indeed.
1. Reviewers have noted that his novel is the equivalent of a magic trick. How does Atkinson accomplish this?
2. Consider, for example, Effie’s writing assignment on Henry James’s critique of Middlemarch as a formless collection of detail. Could the same be said of Effie’s story and Emotionally Weird as a whole? Can you think of other instances where Atkinson seems to be tricking her audience? What does this narrative technique say about Atkinson’s view on writing and language?
3. Paranoia and the feeling of being watched—the constant reference to eyes and looking, Bob’s paranoid exclamations, and even Atkinson’s own linguistic agility, which reminds readers of her presence—is a theme which is present throughout the novel. How does this theme affect the narrative? Does it create suspense? To what degree is this feeling a fabrication and to what degree is it a reality in the world of the novel?
4. What does Atkinson’s use of different fonts for the various narratives in the story accomplish in terms of storytelling and writing? Did you find it effective?
5. Is it clear that the narrator is extremely self-conscious—so much so, that sh’s constantly rewriting her own life story. How does this level of self-consciousness affect her credibility as a narrator? How do the constant interruptions to Effie’s storytelling (the water boiling, the wind, etc.) affect the autobiographical genre that Atkinson is exploring here?
6. The sequences with Effie and Nora on the island seem to take place in the present, that is to say, all the other narratives are stories from Effie and Nora’s past (and imagination) that they recount to each other. Why is it, then, that it is precisely these sequences that have the most dream-like quality about them and seem to be the most surreal? What does this say about the novel as a whole?
7. As the narrative progresses, more and more characters enter the story. Nora even makes a complaint to Effie, saying that there are far too many minor and side characters (p. 167). Moreover, most of these characters are also writing their own novels; even Effie herself is writing a murder mystery. How does this issue of writing about writing fit into the larger theme of the novel? What does it say about writing itself?
8. The shaggy yellow dog is a character in his own right. What does the dog represent in the novel? What is his function?
9. What does Emotionally Weird say about relationships between mothers and daughters? Does Effie’s relationship with Nora progress or regress by the book’s end?
Posted May 5, 2009
there are so many twist and turns. the language is terrific if your trying to improve on your vocabulary.
you really need to concentrate on the story line, it jump back and forth.
i didn't care for that type of drama. But i do think the author is very gifted.
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Posted May 30, 2003
The book seems to be non-sensical, but when you're done with it, you feel thrilled to have been privy to all of their secrets.
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Posted February 25, 2001
This book is about a girl and her mother, who sit around an old house of their ancestors telling each other about their past and unveiling secrets the whole way through. This book is a great book, despite the odd title.
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Posted September 2, 2014
Emotionally Weird is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. It is the early seventies and twenty-one-year-old Euphemia Andrews (Effie) goes home to the family’s summer holiday house on a remote west coast Scottish island where she shares stories with her mother Eleanora (Nora). Effie relates recent events in her life at University in Dundee; Nora, at first unforthcoming, begins to reveal facts about Effie’s true heritage (like her real surname), eventually relating the history of the Stuart-Murray family, including the death of the aunt after whom Effie was named. In Dundee, while trying to meet essay deadlines for her English degree and thinking about leaving the incredibly lazy Bob, Effie becomes convinced she is being followed: there’s this woman in a red coat; and a middle-aged ex-cop turned PI named Chick driving a white Cortina keeps turning up. There are a few deaths that may or may not be natural; several people around her believe someone is trying to kill them; her friend Terri is looking for a lost yellow dog; her tutor’s son is released from prison. Effie relates the events at Dundee like a novel, with Nora interrupting to critique her characters, plot and dialogue. Similarly, Effie interjects into Nora’s story-telling.
Atkinson’s character descriptions (and there is a large cast) are marvellously evocative. The description of the English tutorial (obviously taken from Atkinson’s own experience) is at once blindingly accurate and hilariously funny. The ongoing commentary on creative writing and the (over-)analysis of literature is clever and amusing. The atmosphere of early seventies is expertly conveyed. This is effectively a story (or several) within a story within a story, and Atkinson manages to include snippets of poetry, a play, a medieval fantasy saga, a crime novel, a metaphysical epic tome, and a Mills & Boon style romance, each printed in its own appropriate text style. While Effie’s story does seem to ramble on a bit, drawing criticism from Nora, Emotionally Weird has plenty of humour (some of it quite black) and enough intrigue to keep the reader engaged to the final pages. Another excellent dose of Atkinson.
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Posted October 12, 2014
Posted September 17, 2014
Posted June 9, 2014
I found this a very disorienting book at the beginning. After figuring out the format, it became somewhat more interesting.
Was the university level experience really like this in the 60s? There was a lot of extra explanations that I learned to skip and did not distract from the story.
I will not read any more books by this author.
Posted June 21, 2013
No text was provided for this review.