A hilarious and utterly original novel about mothers, daughters, and love, by the author of Life After Life.
On a weather-beaten island off the coast of Scotland, Effie and her mother, Nora, take refuge in the large, mouldering house of their ancestors and tell each other stories. Nora, at first, recounts nothing that Effie really wants to hear--like who her real father was. Effie tells various versions of her life at college, where in fact she lives in a lethargic relationship with Bob, a student who never goes to lectures, seldom gets out of bed, and to whom Klingons are as real as Spaniards and Germans.
But as mother and daughter spin their tales, strange things are happening around them. Is Effie being followed? Is someone killing the old people? And where is the mysterious yellow dog?
In a brilliant comic narrative which explores the nonsensical power of language and meaning, Kate Atkinson has created another magical masterpiece.
Readers who survive the first 20 pages of this dense and playful novel, with its three different openings, constant jokes, and crowded cast of characters, will find themselves rewarded with a leisurely postmodern romp through the student ferment and bodily indulgences of the early 1970s. Although the publisher has called Emotionally Weird
a comic novel, it is essentially unclassifiable, both further-reaching and less "meaningful" than it first appears. Kate Atkinson's book begins with chapter 1 of a bad murder mystery being written by Effie Andrews for a creative-writing course at the University of Dundee in 1972. But the action soon shifts to a wintry island in the Hebrides, where Effie is trying to elicit the story of her parentage from her single mother, Nora, while spinning a humorous first-person narrative of her college life. Only near the end of the book does she finally wrench the story from her mother: Effie's bizarre origins; the identity of her father; and the whole unlikely tale of her mother's family.
Like a Borgesian labyrinth, with other stories thrown in, including a laughably convenient introduction of magic realism, it is impossible to know what to take seriously--or "jocoseriously," to paraphrase another of Atkinson's influences: the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In her third novel, much of Atkinson's humor is incidental, even parenthetical. (We are told in passing, for example, that Effie's dissertation is called "Henry James: Man or Maze?") She is at her best when introducing her eccentric characters, such as the elderly Professor Cousins, who is sometimes lucid, sometimes not. "As with anyone in the department," Effie explains, "it wasn't always easy to distinguish between the two states. The university's strict laws of tenure dictated that he had to be dead at least three months before he could be removed from behind his desk." Professor Cousins, like the author, enjoys word games along the order of those in Alice in Wonderland, and Atkinson's use of Scottish idiom comes to function as a sort of word game. She also brings in a few killjoys (a militant feminist, a militant Christian, a literary theorist) to complicate an already loopy narrative and to spike the punch.
Janice smelt of piety and coal tar soap. She had recently become a Christian, a neophyte of a student Christian fellowship whose members roamed the corridors of Airlie, Belmont and Chalmers Halls looking for likely converts (the afraid, the alone, the abandoned) and those who needed to use the Bible to fill in the spaces where their personalities should have been.
As Emotionally Weird
develops, Atkinson relies more and more on the postmodern gag of characters commenting on the unfolding action. There is no telling how she finally draws these disparate threads onto a single spool, but in the end, even the slightest subplots are neatly tied up and the most transient characters accounted for. --Regina Marler