Human Croquet

human croquetKate Atkinson’s Human Croquet begins with a forest: the unfathomably old forest of England, created hundreds of thousands of years before human beings arrived there. At the heart of this forest is Glebelands, the estate (eventually) of the formidable de Breville family, who in the sixteenth century briefly had a young tutor named William Shakespeare. At the heart of the heart of the forest is the Lady Oak, and near this ancient tree is a small 1960s housing development, and a house called Arden, where sixteen-year-old Isobel Fairfax lives with her family. And although the story really began with the forest, Isobel is where the story begins.

Confused yet? Just wait. Human Croquet is a fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it seems to lead you astray just as it is leading you to the heart of the mystery (and vice versa.) When Isobel was a child, a strange series of events led her to lose her mother, who never returned (or did she?), and then her father, who came back claiming amnesia (or was it?). She and her brother Charles have questioned reality ever since, Charles inventing parallel universes and stories of doppelgangers; Isobel wondering about the nature of time and, occasionally, slipping sideways into what appears to be the past.

As the story unfolds in what is not quite a linear narrative (but not annoyingly nonlinear, either), Atkinson uses these questions about space, time, dream, and madness to show us the folds and convolutions of what really happened to Isobel’s parents, and a lot of other people besides. Like all marvelous fairy tales, nothing is quite as it seems. There are Ovidian transformations, repetitions of themes (fathers and daughters are a strong motif in this book, and not in a good way), dreams, fairies, a baby on a doorstep, time travel, and murder, all spinning around Isobel’s sixteenth birthday. When events finally resolve — I almost hate to use the word — the end of the book is powerful, satisfying, and yet left me with lingering questions and a strong desire to re-read the book and make sure I’d gotten all the clues.

Kate Atkinson is a great writer. I’ve now read all three of her mysteries (you can see my reviews of them here, here, and here), but this is my first attempt at her literary fiction. Here and there, the writing is a little overblown (unlike her sparer Jackson Brodie mysteries), but this didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment at all. For the most part, the writing was wonderful — clear even when the plot was as dense and thick as a forest. She is witty, unpredictable, and doesn’t shy away from painful, difficult, or crystalline moments, making her prose a marvel to read.

Human Croquet was a weird, wild, and wonderful novel. I now look forward to reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Have any of you read this, and what did you think?

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13 Responses to Human Croquet

  1. Steph says:

    My first Atkinson, several years ago, was Behind the Scenes at the Museum and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t find the writing overblown there, and it made me want to read more by her. I read Case Histories, but it wasn’t to my taste (I was expecting a more traditional mystery with faster pacing). I’ve wanted to read more of Atkinson’s non-detective fiction, but haven’t really done much about it; I’d seen this one at the used bookstore, but wasn’t sure where to begin when it came to her back catalog. This doesn’t sound like a bad place to start!

  2. SFP says:

    This is my favorite Atkinson and your review is making me want to reread it! I think most people like Behind the Scenes better, or maybe they managed to skip Human Croquet altogether.

  3. Great review! I have loved Kate Atkinson’s books ever since I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum many years ago. BtSatM, Human Croquet and When Will There Be Good News are my favourites so far.

  4. litlove says:

    I also loved Behind The Scenes At The Museum when I read it – this one, Human Croquet, is the one I haven’t read of hers, so thank you for the wonderful review!

  5. Claire says:

    It’s been some time since I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum but I really enjoyed it.

    I haven’t read Kate Atkinson’s detective fiction (I’m not a big crime reader, to be fair) but love her writing style. Not the End of the World is a great short story collection with a lot of pop culture references, including Buffy, and makes for fun reading.

  6. Sarah says:

    Like everyone else, I loved Behind the scenes at the museum and the Brodie books. I will have to read Human croquet, it souns like great fun!

  7. Kristen M. says:

    I haven’t read any Atkinson yet but this might be where I start … great review!

  8. Jenny says:

    Steph — I’m always surprised when I remember you didn’t like Case Histories — expectations do change our perceptions of a book, don’t they? But yes, try this one. Maybe it will hook you back into the others, ho ho!

    SFP — I plan to read Behind the Scenes, but I really enjoyed this one. I wonder if the nonlinearity of it puts people off a bit.

    Anna — thanks!

    Litlove — any little thing I can do to return the way you increase my TBR piles…

    Claire — thanks for the recommendation! I had forgotten she had a short story collection out. I might read that next.

    Sarah — Human Croquet is great fun (mostly — there are scenes that are not fun at all.) Prime Atkinson. Enjoy!

  9. Jenny says:

    Kristen — I started with the Brodie mysteries, which are a bit more conventional. But this was a great read!

  10. Ann says:

    I came to Atkinson quite late and have only read her last three Brodie novels. I know that I have ‘Behind the Scenes’ on my shelf somewhere. I am really going to have to go back and read all her other works. Thanks for the necessary push.

  11. savidgereads says:

    I am so glad that you loved this book as I think its possible that this is one of my favourite Kate Atkinson books. I love the “literary crime” novels she writes but this book had me even more hooked. Yes you are spot on, its definately a weird book, but a brilliant one.

  12. Jenny says:

    Ann — I started with the Brodie novels, too, but others assured me I’d love the literary fiction even more (though to be honest, I am skeptical that the distinction is relevant with Atkinson.)

    Simon — I agree with every word you said! Ditto, ditto!

  13. Alice says:

    Hey, nice review, I just want to add that in terms of literature this book is not a “fairytale” but belongs to the gerne of “magical realism” :)

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