A review of

Case Histories

by Kate Atkinson

Central question: What’s literary about a private dick?
Format: 320 pp., hardcover; Size: 6” x 9-1/4”; Price: $23.95; Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; Editor: Reagan Arthur; Book designer: Jo Anne Metsch; Typeface: Bembo; Topic of author’s PhD thesis: “The postmodern American short story in its historical context.” Latent subject of all author’s books, according to psychologist friend: “Cannibalism.” Representative sentence: “But when you split someone’s head open it smelt like an abattoir and quite overpowered the scent of the wild lilacs you’d just cut and brought into the house only this morning, which was already in another life.”

Let’s start the way Kate Atkinson starts her rich and tricky fourth novel, Case Histories; that is to say, with the case histories of the title:

We have a woman who once thought she was marrying a “great mathematician” but now finds herself—a mother of four daughters and pregnant again—wondering what her glowering husband “would look like when he was dead.” Her oldest three children had “evolved into a collective child to which she found it hard to attribute individual details.” Her youngest, Olivia, “was the only one she loved, although God knows she tried her best with the others.” It is Olivia who, from a backyard tent one hot summer night, disappears forever.

We have another parent, a widower who is “morbidly obese” according to his doctor, and so in love with his university-age daughter, Laura, that he is morbidly fixated on all the bad things that could happen to her. (Of his other grown daughter, he rarely thinks much.) Laura is perfect and “still a virgin (he knew because she told him, to his embarrassment), which made him feel immensely relieved.” He worries her out of a summer job at a pub, and places her where he can see her—in his own law firm as a temp. On her first day, a lunatic comes in off the street and Laura is promptly stabbed to death.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—John Glassie

John Glassie lives in New York. McSweeney’s is publishing a book of his photographs, Bicycles Locked to Poles, in the spring.

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