Kate 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?