I’ve set myself a small informal project of getting caught up with previous books by some of my favorite authors who don’t have unreasonably long backlists. That basically means Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters. I’ve read all but a couple of their books, so it’s something I could accomplish by the end of this year.
For Atkinson, I’d read all of her books except Human Croquet and her story collection Not the End of the World. I’ve had Not the End of the World on my shelves for a few years, so that’s where I started. It was okay. Good, not great. Atkinson is a master of the novel, and these stories, while good, do not show her at her best, nor to they show the form at its best.
I’ve noticed that a lot of short stories these days seem to be set in our world, but not. I’m thinking, for instance, of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December. Atkinson’s stories seem to be set in the near future (or the near past now, given that the collection was published in 2002). People watch Buffy and Star Trek: Voyager, and lots of people seem interested in Greek mythology. It seems possible to mate with a God in human form, and a receptionist keeps a submachine gun under her desk. It’s the end of the world–or not.
The stories are linked together, but each one stands alone. A major character in one story might be referenced in another. The final story provides the ultimate linking up, as we see all the stories come together in a final image that’s dark and sad and a little funny, as is typical with Atkinson. But beyond that, it’s not important to be able to see all the connections. It’s just nice to see a familiar name pop up two stories later.
I don’t have much to say overall about these stories. They’re all varying degrees of odd, populated with families that can’t quite connect and people finding themselves in unexpected situations. To explain what happens in them would spoil them, as a lot of the pleasure is in seeing the situation unfold. They’re good stories and probably a little better as a group than on their own. If you’re looking to try Atkinson, I’d recommend starting with a novel instead, probably either Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life After Life, or Case Histories, depending on what appeals to you most.