Title: Started Early, Took My Dog
Publisher: Black Swan
Paperback: 496 pages
Publication Date: 17/02/2011
Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, the fourth to feature the laconic and rather world weary private investigator Jackson Brodie, has a brilliant opening – in a moment of madness, Tracy Waterhouse [an ex-police officer turned head of security at a Leeds shopping centre] buys a little girl from her drug addict, prostitute mother. It’s an impulsive decision, and one which has far-reaching consequences not only for Tracy and the child, but also for Jackson …
However, Jackson and Tracy are merely two-thirds of a triumvirate of protagonists. The other is an elderly actress, Tilly, who suffers from dementia and is appearing in a locally-filmed television detective series called Collier [where Tilly spends most of her time forgetting her lines and unable to remember the name of the lead character].
But, this being a Kate Atkinson novel, these are merely the tip of the character iceberg. For, Started Early, Took My Dog is a book with a large number of subsidiary – and not so subsidiary – characters. This is especially true in the first hundred or so pages of the novel – which did make it slightly confusing to start with [indeed, I found that it took me quite a long time to become acclimatised to the book].
And, further adding to the novel’s early complexity, Atkinson repeatedly shifts between the present day setting and a parallel 1970s-set story arc – one which is both a back-story but also in many ways mirrors the events being played out in the present day arc [a child goes missing and it is played out against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper killings]. In fact, with its emphasis on police corruption, fear and brutality, this 1970s plotline is highly reminiscent of the Yorkshire portrayed in David Peace’s coruscating Red Riding quartet.
One charge that is often made about Atkinson’s novels is that coincidence plays far too large a role in her books. And it’s certainly true that there are rather a large number of coincidences in Started Early which drive the plot forward. However, rather than seeing this as a negative, I really enjoy these rather fantastical and improbable moments [although I can totally understand why some readers might see these coincidences as being both ludicrous and slightly annoying]. For me they add to the idiosyncratic landscape of Atkinson’s literary world – one where doppelgangers [a second PI, Brian Jackson, keeps appearing] and moments of metafictionality [such as the way in which Julia, one of Jackson’s ex wives, repeatedly speaks directly towards the reader] are frequent visitors.
But this eccentric style works because Atkinson writes so beautifully, adorning her prose with moments of spiky wit and a raft of believably realistic characters [although I have to say that Tilly, whilst a very sympathetic and empathetic figure, felt somewhat extraneous and didn’t seem to be adding much to the story for the majority of the novel]. And, whilst I wouldn’t call Started Early pacy [certainly not in the way that most books in the crime fiction genre would be termed ‘pacy’], it also never plods and through the use of constantly shifting point-of-view narratives Atkinson is able to maintain a sense of suspense throughout the book.