The joy of a reader when she discovers a new author to read is hard to fathom unless you are a reader. Much like discovering a new restaurant, or a new Korean drama, the first urge is to share and so I am here acting out this urge.
I don’t usually like detective novels, having neither the curiosity nor the patience to discover ‘who done it’. But this novel is unlike other detective novels, and more like books written by the late Irish author Maeve Binchy, where inter-personal relationship and emotions are explored among the various characters in the story, all held together by a central figure, Jackson, a private investigator.
Case Histories starts with three police cases in the 1970s and 80s. The first one involves a missing toddler, Olivia. Her three sisters Sylvia, Amelia and Julia were devastated by her disappearance. Her case is re-opened when Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s doll in their father’s drawer after his death.
The second case is the cold-blooded murder of a young girl at her father’s law office. The father, Theo, cannot get over the loss and wants Jackson to find the murderer.
The last case involves a new mother, Michelle, who had chopped her husband with an axe after he woke the baby up. Michelle went missing after her release from jail but her sister wants Jackson to find her missing niece, Michelle’s daughter.
We learn also that Jackson himself cannot get over the loss of his sister who was raped and murdered when he was twelve, and the subsequent suicide of his older brother, who had blamed himself for not picking the sister up from the workplace.
Atkinson’s book is the most charming when she describes the relationship between sisters. I can totally relate to the scenes, being close to my own sister, as well as witnessing the relationship of my five maternal aunts. The bickering and conversation between sisters can only be appreciated by sisters themselves.
Other than the lovable and realistic portrayal of characters, her account of the insight to life is also eye-opening and at times funny.
Theo is a heavily obese man and the reaction of people to his obesity brings a guilty reminder of myself. ‘Theo’s heart was knocking uncomfortably inside his chest and he took refuge in a café on Mill Road, where he ordered a modest latte and a scone but nonetheless was subject to the disapproval of the waitress, who made it clear that she thought someone so overweight shouldn’t be eating at all.’ (That waitress could have been me!) The book is sprinkled with tiny observations like that – natural yet so funny.
Then there is this passage linking sneezing to orgasm : ‘Julia started sneezing again. It was always embarrassing when Julia had a sneezing fit, one after the other, explosive, uncontrollable sounds, like a cannon firing. Amelia had once heard someone say that you could tell what a woman’s orgasm would be like if you heard her sneeze. (As if you would want to know.)’ Atkinson’s description of the sneeze reminded me of my aunt’s sneeze – exactly that way but I wouldn’t want to know if her orgasm is that explosive as well. (On the other hand, could one improve her orgasm by changing the way she sneezes?)
Jackson eventually did solve the cases but that wasn’t really the highlight and Atkinson sort of gloss over at the end. For the reader, it wasn’t important that he solve the case, but the journey he took as he form a relationship with his clients. Isn’t that the same relationship between a reader and the book?