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Kate Atkinson: Human Croquet

Judging from Kate Atkinson’s first two novels, she must have had a very troubled childhood. As in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, we have a young female narrator. This time the Ruby role is played by Isobel Fairfax, who has just turned sixteen though, as with Ruby, we move back and forward through her life (well back and well forward). Like Ruby, her life and her story are anarchic, which should be taken as a compliment because one of Atkinson’s many strengths is to have the story apparently going all over the place and yet remain in full control of her material and, at the same time, have us, the hypocrites lecteurs, go along with her anarchy.

Another of Atkinson’s strengths is her humour and this book, like Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is very funny. We learn of the history of the Fairfax family. [Oblique historical note: Atkinson’s Fairfaxes are sort of fictitious but they are based on the very real Fairfax family, who lived in the area described by Atkinson – some of the place names she mentions are real. The most famous was Sir Thomas Fairfax who fought for Cromwell in the English Civil War. The family also had extensive lands in Virginia and Fairfax County, Virginia gets its name from them. The Fairfax Manor mentioned in the novel is, in fact, Nun Appleton Hall, famous for the poem written about it by Marvell, who was tutor to Sir Thomas Fairfax’ daughter.] By the time Isobel is born, the fictitious Fairfaxes run a grocery store which, during the course of the novel, they are forced to sell. Isobel’s immediate family consists of her father, Gordon, her mother, Eliza whom Gordon apparently (note the word apparently) murders and her physically repulsive and diminutive brother, Richard. Richard and Isobel see their mother after she has been killed but are too young to know what has happened and are told that she has run off (they eagerly await her return during most of the novel). Gordon does run off (to New Zealand) but returns seven years later with a new wife, Debbie. During his absence, Richard and Isabel are brought up by their grandmother and their unpleasant aunt, Vinny.

While the plot is important and interesting, what makes this novel so enjoyable is Isobel – her wry comments on life, of course, but also the strange things that happen to her on and around her sixteenth birthday. There is a fascinating Czech film called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, concerning the strange things that happen to a girl who is menstruating for the first time. While this is not an issue for Isobel, her sixteenth birthday might be seen as a similar rite of passage. Certainly, strange things happen to her. Firstly, she suddenly slips back into the past. This is fairly innocuous. She remains in the same place geographically but is transported back in time. This lasts only a short while and causes her no problem. (It might also happen to her stepmother, Debbie). Secondly, she vividly and vicariously lives various horrific events which often culminate in the boy she lusts after, Malcolm Lovat, being killed in a car crash. (Though no-one knows it, she is in fact the half-sister of Malcolm Lovat.)

Lusting after Lovat, slipping back in time, growing up, dealing with her dysfunctional and apparently homicidal family, coping with her friend, Audrey, daughter of the viciously abusive (to his family and pupils) local headmaster, yearning for the return of her mother and generally commenting on the world and its ways – all this and more are what keeps Isobel going. This is another thoroughly enjoyable novel from Atkinson but I really worry about her family life.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Picador