I think the title of this book alone won me over, especially when I know the emotional weirdness in question comes from the mind of Kate Atkinson. I discovered Atkinson earlier this year, and she has quickly become one of my favorite writers. With her books, the story is barely even the point. Her voice is just so spectacularly sharp and funny that she could write about just about anything and I’d read it. This is, after all, the woman who had me cracking up in a scene about axe murder in Case Histories.
Although Atkinson is probably best known for her excellent crime novels about former police detective Jackson Brodie, I think I prefer her non-crime novels. It’s a tough comparison for me to make because I’ve listened to three of her crime novels and read two of her non-crime books in print, so the experience is different. But at this point, probably because I’ve just come off the sheer joy of reading it, Emotionally Weird is my favorite and Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows close behind. As wonderful as the Brodie novels are, I hope Atkinson hasn’t given up on these oddball non-crime books that are such delights.
Effie, the first-person narrator of Emotionally Weird, is 21 years old. As the novel begins, we learn that her mother, Nora, is a virgin (“trust me,” says Effie, immediately after this opening). Effie, named for her mother’s sister, knows nothing about her extended family or about how she came to be Nora’s daughter. She has come to an isolated island, a piece of family property handed down to her mother even though Nora says “the idea of land ownership is absurd, not to mention politically incorrect. But, whether she likes it or not, she is empress of all she surveys. Although that is mostly water.”
Most of the book is not about Effie’s life with Nora, however. It’s about her life as a literature student at Dundee University. She’s a half-hearted student at best. She seems to spend most of her time going to class as little as possible and putting off doing her assignments, which include a paper on George Eliot, one on Henry James, and a crime novel for her creative writing course. Her professors are all quirky and eccentric, and the students are too. Frankly, there are too many students to keep track of, a point that Nora makes when she suddenly pipes in early in the book.
Yes, my friends, we have here a work of meta-fiction. Effie tells her story, Nora interrupts. Effie comments on her choices. Effie asks Nora to tell her own story, to clue Effie in on their own past. Nora dodges. Effie remains the main narrator, with Nora serving only as an interlocutor, and Atkinson uses different typefaces to make the shifts in time clear. Here Effie is telling her story, with commentary from Nora:
We set off back into town. ‘You’ve wasted enough of my time,’ Chick said. ‘I’ve got other fish to fry, even if you haven’t.’
‘It’s you that’s wasting my time,’ I said. ‘I have an essay—‘~Too much dialogue, Nora sighs, I prefer descriptive writing.
As we drove back along the Nethergate we were accompanied by a great winter sunset painted across the western sky in livid colours—blood-orange and vascular violet—as if somewhere up-river a terrible fiery massacre was taking place. The rays of the dying sun, reflected in the water, made the Tay appear (just for once) to be a river of molten gold. A hard frost was already falling and the smell of snow was in the air.‘Do you prefer that?’ ~Yes.
It must be a huge feat of celestial engineering to get the sun to come up and down every day. Of course, I do know it’s not quite as mechanical as that. But I like to think it is. Within seconds the sun slipped out if sight, gone to the antipodes or wherever it goes, and we were left with a darker kind of darkness.Nora frowns. Now you’re just being whimsical.
Eventually, the story does appear to spin out of control, with too many characters, too many motifs, too many threads, but that’s kind of the point. This is a book about the telling of tales, not about a university student and her mother, although their relationship is important—and their story does have a satisfying ending. The overarching idea seems to be the idea of story and the telling of stories, sometimes skillful telling, sometimes not. And every story has an audience, and that audience does not always react as the teller would wish.
The idea of story is emphasized through the appearance of samples of the characters’ writing throughout the pages. We read bits of Kevin’s fantasy epic set in Edrakonia, land of the dragons. There are excerpts of one professor’s doctor/nurse romance she’s writing for Mills and Boon. And another professor’s postmodern tome that he’s been working on for years. And then there’s Effie’s classmate Andrea’s stories of Anthea, a student studying English literature at university. And of course there’s Effie’s own crime novel. (Each of these is set in its own appropriate typeface.)
Other characters talk about stories, both understanding them and crafting them. We read bits of incomprehensible lectures about “writers who eschew mimesis” and writing exercises involving using three unrelated words in a sentence. The fascination with story extends beyond the literature classes. Effie’s boyfriend Bob is immersed in the world of Doctor Who and references Star Trek when trying to work out ideas for his philosophy thesis.
And I haven’t even mentioned baby Proteus, or the dog(s), or the unpredictable power outages!
Somehow, with the magic of her voice, Atkinson makes this all work. Instead of feeling overstuffed, this book felt filled with delights and surprises—something new on every page. And even when the story appears to be out of Effie’s control, it seems to be clearly in Atkinson’s control.
With Atkinson, though, the story is scarcely the point. I just love her voice. I could fill this review with one comical quote after another. There’s something about Atkinson’s humor that suits me perfectly. I know I’ve mentioned before that I have a low tolerance for quirkiness, but Atkinson makes quirk work. There’s just enough bite to it that I end up liking it. So I shall leave you with a few favorite lines. Perhaps these will convince you to give this a try.
I can’t help but think that it’s an unfortunate custom to name children after people who come to sticky ends. Even if they are fictional characters, it doesn’t bode well for the poor things. There are too many Judes and Tesses and Clarissas and Cordelias around. If we must name our children after literary figures then we should search out happy ones, although it’s true they are much harder to find.
Bob’s idea of a balanced diet left something to be desired. When I first met him he lived off fish suppers from The Deep Sea, the occasional tin of dog food (‘Why not?’) and jars of cold baby food, the latter a particularly sensible way of eating in Bob’s opinion—no cooking, no washing-up, no thought at all beyond whether to have ‘Lamb and Vegetables’ or ‘Pears and Custard.’ Or both. It was wasted on babies, Bob said, and his only complaint was that Heinz didn’t do fish and chips in toddler-sized jars.
I was distracted suddenly from these pleasant thoughts by noticing that, like the eyes in certain portraits, Heather’s nipples seemed to have the uncanny ability to follow you around the room. This is the kind of observation that once made, cannot be unmade. Unfortunately.
Personally, I don’t think it right to make up things about real people—although I suppose there’s an argument for saying that once you’re dead you’re not real any more. But then we have to define what we mean by real and none of us wants to go down that tortuous path because we all know where it leads (madness or a first-class honours, or both).
Some people spend their whole lives looking for themselves, yet our self is the one thing we surely cannot lose (how like a cheap philosopher I am become, staying in this benighted place). From the moment we are conceived it is the pattern in our blood and our bones are printed through with it like sticks of seaside rock. Nora, on the other hand, says that she’s surprised anyone knows who they are, considering that every cell and molecule in our bodies has been replaced many times over since we were born.