Near the beginning of this novel by Kate Atkinson, we learn the history of Fairfax Manor and the enigmatic Lady Mary Fairfax, who appeared naked one stormy night, became the bride of Sir Francis, and, years later, vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as she arrived. That was back in the late 16th century. Our storyteller, Isobel Fairfax, lives centuries later, in the 1960s, and she’s turning 16.
Isobel lives in a house built on the site of the old Fairfax Manor with her father, Gordon; her stepmother, Debbie; her aunt, Vinny; and her brother, Charles. Her mother, Eliza, disappeared almost as mysteriously as Lady Mary did, and Isobel has no memory of her. No one but Charles wants to talk about her, and she clings to bits and pieces of her that she finds around the house—a powder compact, a lone shoe.
But the mysteries aren’t limited to Isobel’s ancestors. She’s beginning to experience something strange herself. She’ll be walking along in the wood, only to find herself transported suddenly to the same wood, but different. Her brother Charles, with his interest in the paranormal, is fascinated:
‘Amazing,’ Charles says enviously when I tell him, ‘you must have been in a time warp.’ He makes it sound like a normal occurrence, like a trip to the seaside. He proceeds to interrogate me for the rest of the evening about the minutiae of this otherworld. ‘Did you smell anything? Rotten eggs? Static? Ozone?’ None of these unpleasant things, I answer irritably, only the scent of green grass and the bitter smell of hawthorn.
Perhaps it was some kind of cosmic April Fool’s joke? I’m only just sixteen and here I am already leaking madness like a sieve.
Isobel’s story is confused and confusing. She’s 16 and still trying to figure things out, which is difficult enough without time warps and mysterious appearances and disappearances. In fact, most of the drama in this book is not in the time travel, it’s in ordinary daily life, where abuse and abandonment happen every day. The story gets extremely dark, as Isobel faces down the dark sides of her family and neighbors. Tragedy begins to feel inevitable, like destiny.
The title, Human Croquet, refers to a party game in which people take on the role of croquet balls and wickets. The blindfolded “balls” are led through the “wickets” by the voice of the players. One of the characters mentions the game repeatedly, noting that you need lots of people to play. The novel is a little like that. There are lots of characters, getting led around by the plot, not seeing where they’re going, bumping up against each other, and being driven through each others’ lives. But is Isobel the blindfolded ball getting knocked around, or is she the player guiding the balls?
It is Isobel’s voice that keeps the story rollicking along. She’s a self-conscious storyteller from the start, telling the reader,
I am Isobel Fairfax. I am the alpha and omega of narrators (I am omniscient) and I know the beginning and the end. The beginning is the word and the end is silence. And in between are all the stories. This in one of mine.
Her voice throughout the novel is so distinct that you never forget that you’re in a story someone else is weaving. This is, for me, one of the pleasure of Kate Atkinson’s novels, especially her early ones. She writes great stories, but the voices in which those stories are told set them apart. And, sometimes, the style of the storytelling becomes essential to the plot. This is especially the case for Emotionally Weird, but is also true of this book to some degree.
Atkinson has played with the nature of reality and time and truth in other books, most especially Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and this book has a lot in common with both of those. However, this book has a saggy charm to it that I miss in the newer books. It’s not just Isobel’s voice that makes a difference, nor is it the sometimes preposterous turns of plot. I think what I enjoyed about this is the way it kept me off-kilter almost the whole way through. With Life After Life, the rules are clear early on. And with A God in Ruins, the rules are upended only in the final moments. In this book, the line between reality and unreality is always in question. Many of those questions are resolved in the end, but I think we’re still left to wonder what the truth of the story is.
Toward the end of the book, we get a new version of Fairfax Manor’s history, this one more banal and ordinary than the one that opened the book. But I don’t think it’s more true, although it may hew closer to the facts. Isobel is groping for a sort of emotional truth, something that draws out the essences of the people around her and their emotional connections. The facts might not be enough for that, although the facts inform those truths, sometimes in ways the croquet-ball characters aren’t even consciously aware of. This question of multiple truths has turned up in many other books, often as a last-minute revelatory gimmick. Atkinson does something similar here, but it doesn’t feel much like a gimmick to me. Partly, I think, it’s because she avoids offering just two opposing stories, a factual one and a fantastical one. Truth is too woolly to live in just two alternatives. Truth branches out in all kinds of directions, fact and fantasy together.
This is a terrific book, as Atkinson’s books always are. It’s also the last of her books I have left to read, so I now have to wait for more. Have you read any Atkinson? What are your favorites?