Is it me or is it the book?
11 March 2009
Over the weekend I read Kate Atkinson's well-reviewed and bestselling novel Case Histories. It's a literary crime/suspense novel featuring former police detective and current private investigator, Jackson Brodie, and the three different cases he's brought in to investigate: a little girl's disappearance (which happened in 1970); the seemingly random attack on an eighteen-year-old office worker; and a woman's post-partum stress and her murderous attack on her husband.
It totally sucked me in; I wasn't really able to put it down until I was done. I liked the characters, including Jackson Brodie, and of course, Kate Atkinson is a British author, lending her narrative that certain British something that I can't define, but I usually recognize and always love.
When I was done with the novel I felt bad. There's no more nuanced way to put it. And I don't know why that was. It just made me sad. It's not shocking in subject matter, but throughout the story the author does provide glimpses of the nasty underbelly of her stories. It was actually quite well done; Atkinson did a nice job of slipping the ugly in and not reveling in its descriptions. (I wonder if that didn't almost make it worse.) So what bothered me?
I gave it a little thought, and eventually shrugged and marked it up to the mood I was in the day I read the book. I do believe that one's mood can affect the reading experience, so I was satisfied with that. (Although doubts still niggle--I've read a lot uglier books, like Irvine Welsh's Crime*--and liked them, so is playing the mood card the easy out?) And, I can't say I was completely unpleased with my personal reaction. Sometimes I feel like I'm not much of a book "reviewer," in that I believe in saying what I think about a book, even if I didn't like it; but I do like to think there's a difference between calling a book bad and recognizing that a book is good, but simply not for me. (Hence the two categories in the sidebar; "Phoning it in" is for the bad books, "Not for Me," well, is self-explanatory.)
Case Histories was a good book. Why it made me so unhappy I don't know. When I want to figure it out I might pick up its sequel, One Good Turn, make a note of the mood I'm in when I read it, and see how it makes me feel.**
*Okay, this is really weird, but if you search Powell's for "welsh crime," the top titles, several of them nonfiction, all feature similar cover art of people holding hands with or standing near children, photographed from the back. Did the cover designer for Welsh's book know that?
**I know, life's too short to read books you don't love. But, honest to pete, charting my reading experiences and reactions is a hobby. Then, when people pick on me for not being very well-rounded in my hobbies, I have my own defense: "I don't only read." They don't really have to know that my other hobbies include making notes of my reading experiences, writing about reading, touring area libraries, visiting bookstores when I travel, and watching BBC adaptations of British novels.