Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson








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Readers who are bored with formulaic and predictable mysteries can take a break from those and enjoy reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, One Good Turn. There are many turns and twists following the initial “good turn” that’s performed by a bystander who observed a minor traffic accident in Edinburgh and the beating that followed. Atkinson provides good momentum, an ensemble of interesting, yet shallow characters, and weaves her story around the themes of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, pp. 30-32:


Bright lights suddenly illuminated a white square, making the surrounding darkness seem even blacker. Six people walked into the square from all directions, they walked fast, crisscrossing one another in a way that made him think of soldiers performing a complex drill display on the parade ground. One of them stopped and began to swing his arms and rotate his shoulders as if getting ready for strenuous physical exercise. All six of them began to speak nonsense. “Unique New York, unique New York, unique New York,” a man said, and a woman answered, “Rubber baby buggy bumpers, rubber baby buggy bumpers,” while doing some kind of tai chi. The man who had been swinging his arms now ad­dressed empty air, speaking rapidly without pausing for breath. “Thou-sleepst-worse-than-if-a-mouse-should-be-forced-to-take­up—her—lodging-in—a—cat’s—ear—a-little-infant—that—breeds—his-teeth­should-lie-with-thee-would-cry-out-as-if-thou-were-the-unquiet-bedfellow” A woman stopped in the middle of her mad walking and declared, “Floppy fluffy puppies, floppy fluffy pup­pies, floppy fluffy puppies.” It was like watching the inmates of an old-fashioned asylum.

A man walked out of the darkness and into the square of light, clapped his hands, and said, “Okay, everyone, if you’ve finished your warm-up, can we get on with the dress, please?”

Jackson wondered if this was a good time to make his presence known. The actors—the “company”—had spent the morning doing the technical run-through. This afternoon they were hav­ing the dress rehearsal, and Jackson had been hoping that he could take Julia to lunch before then, but the actors were already attired alike in brown-and-gray shifts that looked like potato sacks. His heart sank at the sight of them. Theater, for Jackson, although of course he would never say this to any of them, was a good pantomime, preferably attended in the company of an enthusiastic child.

The actors had arrived yesterday, they had been rehearsing in London for three weeks, and he was finally introduced to them for the first time last night in a pub. They had all gone into raptures— one of them, a woman older than Jackson, had jumped up and down in a parody of a small child, and another (already he had for­gotten their names) dropped dramatically to her knees with her hands raised up in prayer to him and said, “Our savior.” Jackson had squirmed inwardly, he didn’t really know how to deal with thespian types, they made him feel staid and grown-up. Julia was standing in the background (for once) and acknowledged his dis­comfort by winking at him in a way that might have been sala­cious, but he couldn’t really tell because he had recently (finally) admitted to himself that he needed spectacles. The beginning of the end, downhill from now on.

The actors were a small ad hoc group based in London, and Jackson had stepped in when at the eleventh hour they lost their funding to bring their play to the Edinburgh Fringe. Not out of any love of theater but because Julia had wheedled and cajoled in her usual over-the-top fashion, which was unnecessary—all she had needed to do was ask. It was the first real acting job she’d had in a while, and he had begun to wonder to himself (never to her, God forbid) why she called herself an actress when she hardly ever acted. When she thought she was about to lose this part at the last moment because of the lack of money, she had been plunged into a profound gloom that was so uncharacteristic of her that Jackson felt impelled to cheer her up.

The play, Looking for the Equator in Greenland, was Czech (or maybe Slovakian, Jackson hadn’t really been listening), an existen­tialist, abstract, impenetrable thing that was about neither the equator nor Greenland (nor indeed about looking for anything). Julia had brought the script over to France and asked him to read it, watching him while he did so, saying, “What do you think?” every ten minutes or so as if he knew anything at all about the­ater. Which he didn’t. “Seems . . . fine,” he said helplessly.

“So you think I should take the job?”

“God, yes:’ he said a little too promptly. In retrospect, he realized there was no question of her not taking the job and wondered if she’d known from the beginning that funding was going to be a nightmare and had wanted him to feel involved with the play in some way. She wasn’t a manipulative person, quite the opposite, but sometimes she had a way of looking ahead that surprised him. “And if we’re successful you’ll get your money back:’ she said cheerfully when he offered. “And you never know—you might make a profit.” In your dreams, Jackson thought, but he didn’t say that.

“Our angel:’ Tobias, the director, had called him last night, em­bracing him in a queeny hug. Tobias was more camp than a Scout jamboree. Jackson had nothing against gays, he just wished that sometimes they wouldn’t be quite so gay, especially when being in­troduced to him in what had turned out, unfortunately, to be a good old-fashioned macho Scottish pub. Their “savior,” their “angel”—so much religious language from people who weren’t in any way religious. Jackson knew himself to be neither a savior nor an angel. He was just a guy. A guy who had more money than they did.


The connections among the characters add to the pleasure of reading One Good Turn, and by the end, all the connections are made, somewhat neatly by Atkinson. It’s only after finishing the novel that readers will reflect on the overplay of coincidence, and how little we care about most characters because they are fading images, not memorable and recognizable characters. One Good Turn is better than the average mystery novel, but not worth a second reading.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2006 issue of Executive Times


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