Human Croquet is as good as Life After Life, which is right up there with my top fifty of all time. Kate Atkinson once again plays wondrous games with time and place, moving from era to century to event as she explores multiple levels of character and consciousness.
Isobel Fairfax is the teen-age daughter of Gordon and Eliza Fairfax, living in a house situated near a wood named Arden. All conveniently coincidental, since Fairfax was once Shakespeare’s patron, and the area was once part of his estate, and the mysterious, magical wood from As You Like It is also named Arden, and the initials “WS” are carved into an ancient oak on the estate. Of course there was a servant with the same initials in the Fairfax household, so there’s considerable doubt about the provenance of the initials, but the locals believe what they want.
Lots of stuff happens in Arden during the course of Human Croquet. Some of them happen several times, and Isobel keeps falling into different periods of history and either participating or observing the events. It’s not just a science fiction/fantasy trick Atkinson is playing, though. “Izzy” is a complex creature. She’s inordinately tall for a girl, even sliding toward the buxom. She’s starved for love, both romantic and parental. Her mother–always treated with great hostility by the rest of the family–disappeared when Izzy was quite young. She yearns for her both her maternal attentions and her motives for leaving. As she wanders involuntarily into this or that time warp, she witnesses everything from infidelity to murder. Neither she nor we are sure what is real and what is not. No bigger Shakespeare theme than that. Especially when you throw in an amateur production of Midsummer Night’s Dream into the equation.
And you can’t for get the lost-then-found father. Or the obese stepmother (there was a lost mother and an obese mother in Emotionally Weird, too. I’m sure a Kate Atkinson scholar could tell me what’s up with that, but oh, well.)
Way too many elements for most writers to handle, but not our Kate. In the end, we have both clarity and ambiguity, Along the way we have mystery, excitement, suspense, delicious language, and the kind of thrilling reading experience we’ve come to expect from Kate Atkinson. Yum.