Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Reviewed by Harriet

He wished that he could just once hear his sister play a solo again. Or help his sister pin up the hem on a dress she’d made. Or have a goodnight peck on the cheek from his mother – the most intimacy she could manage. They were not a family who touched. Too late now. Jackson sighed. He was growing weary of himself.

Yes, after ten years since his last appearance, Jackson Brodie has made a comeback. If you are one of the few people reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, Jackson is Kate Atkinson’s melancholy ex-policeman turned private investigator. Where he’s been all this time we don’t really know, but now he’s living near Whitby in the north east of England, sharing custody of his disaffected teenage son Nathan. Julia, Nathan’s actress mother, and Jackson’s on-off girlfriend, has a lucrative job in a soap, so Jackson is saddled with his son most of the time. His working life is not exactly busy – he’s posing online as a teenage girl to attempt to entrap a paedophile and following an adulterous couple round bars and restaurants. Not much of a life, really. Then he gets drawn into a series of events which at least offer some interest and excitement.

The novel actually begins with a teasing, ominous opening chapter. A couple of pretty Polish sisters are excitedly Skyping with the head of a British agency who has promised to find them highly paid work in the UK. They’ve checked the agency’s credentials on their website and it all looks above board. And their interviewer, Mr Price, is sitting in a very upmarket office, with busy office sounds audible in the background. Their flights have been booked and they will be taken to an Airbnb for the night before turning up at their new jobs. Needless to say when the call ends, we discover that ‘Mr Price’ is sitting in front of a constructed set inside a remote caravan in a field. Over time the extent of his operation is revealed in all its horror.

Next we meet a trio of friends who meet regularly to play golf. Andy and Tommy are wealthy businessmen. The third member of the group is Vince Ives, ‘a middle-aged, middle class, middle of the road’ telecom engineer, who is in the throes of a divorce and living in a run-down bedsit, his wife having taken him for all he’s got. He knows they are not real friends, just what he calls golf friends. Deeply depressed, Vince heads for the cliffs with the intention of throwing himself off, but is rescued in the nick of time by Jackson, who happens to be passing. In a separate strand, Jackson encounters Tommy’s trophy wife Crystal, who is sure she is being followed by a silver BMW. Then her stepson Harry and her four year old daughter are kidnapped.

Stories which appear at first to be disparate are gradually revealed to have deep and disturbing connections. Two young female police officers have been given the job of investigating a historic paedophile ring, as it is known that some of the members – often very important people in their own right – are still on the loose. And eventually it turns out that the ‘Mr Price’ scam with poor Nadja and Katja – sex trafficking – has links with the events in the past, and indeed Crystal herself proves to have been one of the many victims of the historic crimes.

The plot, which initially seems slow and convoluted, gradually picks up pace and needless to say everything comes to a satisfactory conclusion in the end. But you won’t be reading this excellent novel just for the plot. This wouldn’t be a Kate Atkinson novel if it didn’t have any subtle literary tricks, though they are less foregrounded than in, for instance, her two Costa winning novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins. Jackson has been known to reference his ‘little grey cells’, and is in the habit of quoting lines from films and TV cop shows, even making use of one of them in his clifftop rescue of poor Vince. He seems almost to know he is a fictional character, and reflects on his adventures in that context:

Running for the border, he thought, like a man in a book or a film, although he was neither, he was a man in his own life, and that life was falling apart. And there was no border to run for, unless you counted the invisible administrative one between North Yorkshire and Teesside.

There’s much wry humour in this novel, and much compassion too – even the reprehensible characters appear very human under their fake exteriors, and Crystal, for example, who at first we see simply as a brilliant construct of artificial makeovers proves to have a fine heart and a great deal of courage. As for Jackson himself, anyone who’s met him before will be delighted to encounter him again – older but not particularly wiser, he makes his way through a not particularly satisfactory life, sustaining himself with his own rather cynical reflections on the nature of human existence. And if you haven’t met him before, you will soon be glad you did. Excellent stuff.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Kate Atkinson, Big Sky (Doubleday, 2019). 978-0857526106, 368pp., hardback.

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