Where to start reading Kate Atkinson

 

With a writing career spanning over twenty years that encompasses a range of novels and short story collections – mostly found at the top of bestseller lists – it's a challenge knowing where to start with the work of Kate Atkinson. But start you should.

There's the award winners – and plenty of them. Or for the genre devotees there's the historical fiction, family sagas and even a crime series, the fifth installment of which, Big Sky, is out in paperback this week.

But if you are still looking for a little more guidance, here is a list of our favourites which will give you a taste of one of the literary world’s more versatile and unique voices.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

Atkinson’s debut caused something of a media frenzy when it won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the year award after beating Salmon Rushdie - and other established authors - and is a great introduction to the author's unique style.

Behind the Scenes is the story of the occasionally dysfunctional, but mostly unusual Lennox family told via the all-seeing narrator, Ruby. The story meanders between the lives of her great-grandparents to her own up-brining in 1950s York. It is a dark and comic tale exploring our relationship with family history and the disparaging moment we realise life hasn’t turned out quite as imagined.

Life After Life (2013) and A God in Ruins (2015)

While the Lennox family are somewhat stuck, Atkinson allows the protagonist of Life After Life to change her destiny – multiple times. With each abrupt end to her life, Ursula Todd returns to the night of her birth in 1910. But as she experiences the turbulent years of the Second World War and a desperate attempt to save the life of her beloved brother Teddy, Ursula realises she might be the only person who can alter the course of history. 

Whether having the ability to change our fate will bring us greater happiness is explored further in the companion novel, A God in Ruins, which picks up the story of Teddy in a version of his life which sees him survive the war and grow old. Although Atkinson described this book as her best work ‘and will remain so’ - both titles won the Costa Prize in their respective year and are a powerful reading experience  - you can even decide which order you'd like to read them in. 

Jackson Brodie Series

Next on the reading list is one of Atkinson’s most popular characters to date: Jackson Brodie, a blunt, opinionated and emotionally troubled ex-forces turned private detective. Haunted by his own personal tragedy, Brodie finds solace in solving the crimes the police don’t seem to care about or even notice. The character features in five novels, starting with Case Histories (2005), set in Cambridge, where he begins to connect three cold case murders leading to an unpredictable ending.

Across the next three books – One Good Turn (2007), When Will There Be Good News? (2009) and Started Early, Took My Dog (2011) – we follow our hero and his unique crime-solving skills around a variety of picturesque corners of Britain until we find him on the wind-swept coast of Yorkshire in the latest novel Big Sky where a chance encounter with a man on the cliff edge leads him to uncover a sinister underworld.  Jason Isaacs, who played Brodie both in the 2011 BBC TV series and voices the audiobooks, describes the protagonist as a ‘Mr Rochester for the modern age,’ which we can firmly get on board with. 


  

Not the End of the World (2003) 

Even the most avid reader might need a break after completing a series of five books, so this collection of short stories is just the thing to dip in and out of. Not the End of the World marked a return to earlier form for Atkinson who, before publishing her debut, spent years writing short stories. 

This collection of tales, largely set in Scotland, entwine ordinary and modern settings with myth and legend. There is the story of Eddie who has an unusual connection with the fish in the Deep Sea World he enjoys visiting, and two girls who wander through shops continuing their inane conversation while the end of the world begins. Not only is it a great read, but half the fun is discovering how each story is connected.


 

Transcription (2018)
We finish our whistle-stop tour with a story of espionage set against the backdrop of the Second World War. The idea came to Atkinson while she was doing some research in the National Archive and came across the story of an undercover spy called Jack King. It led her to think about the unnamed girl – and it would have been a girl says Atkinson – who's role in the operation would have been the mundane admin work.

Transcription tells the story of 18-year old Juliet who is recruited to work for MI5 and spends her days in a small flat in Pimlico, transcribing the conversations that take place in the flat next door between a spy called Godfey Toby and Nazi sympathisers who believe they are reporting valuable information to their leaders. Years later, she sees Toby again and is forced to face a terrible incident that will connect them forever.

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