Your mother said it's good to try new things, and Kate Atkinson took this advice to heart. Her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was a multigenerational tale, garnering her a Whitbread Award. It was a straight-ahead story, messy with details and family trees, and it was good.
For the short story collection Not the End of the World, Atkinson leaps into the nonlinear, dipping a toe into magic surrealism. And it's good. The change is a courageous move, and it works -- these stories are witty and sad, astounding and unreal. Atkinson creates her own mythology with a steady line of characters who are loosely linked to one another. Replicating real life, the action is in the periphery.
In the opening story, "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping," we find our two titular protagonists wandering through stores, pondering what to buy. Charlene talks endlessly and hypnotically about what she would like to buy, where she would like to be -- wonderful, impossible things told in exquisite detail. When Trudi opines that she would like to have a cat, Charlene disagrees. She wants a singing fish:
"A fish that sings and has a magic ring in its stomach. A huge carp that is caught in a fishpond -- usually at a royal court somewhere -- and cooked and served at the table and when you bite into the fish you find a magic ring. And the magic ring will lead you to the man who will love you. Or the small white mouse which is the disguise of the man who will love you."
Trudi is unimpressed. She points out, "That would be a rodent then."
As the story continues, and as our gals go on -- buying little and chatting incessantly -- tiny details emerge. While Trudi ponders soaps and honeys and Charlene thinks about the article she has to write for a bridal magazine, "Ten Things to Consider Before Saying 'I Do'" ("Saying 'I don't'?" Trudi suggests), things are going very wrong. As they shop, bombs detonate in the distance. As they sleep, they keep Sig Sauer semiautomatics under their pillows. The world is ending around them.
Like most of us, these people wish for better things, better lives. Charlene and Trudi shop amid an apocalypse, when all they really want is for life to go on. Trudi lists the names of products as if they were talismans against danger. Likewise Eddie, the 12-year-old boy in "Tunnel of Fish," who may be a product of his mother's liaison with a water god, finds that "When he incanted the gorgeously impenetrable names of fish ... Eddie felt like a sorcerer."
And so it goes. In "Unseen Translation," another young boy, the neglected son of a starlet, has a governess that may just well be a goddess. Poor, dull Fielding from "Evil Doppelgngers" finds out that a wild and reckless version of himself has been incarnated -- and is having a far better time than he. "Transparent Fiction" introduces the Zane family, a set of sisters so healthy and beautiful, so stereotypically American that they're referred to as "a domestic assembly line that could have rivaled Ford." Heir to this clan of Pleiades is Meredith, who, bored with life and uninspired by her own self, amazes everyone when she seizes the opportunity for immortality.
Atkinson's tales and fables create an amazing world. As she often points out, every morning Eosphorus, the morning star, wakes his mother Eos, the dawn. Just as assuredly, she has created stories in which every day celebrates the creations and ends of worlds, both literal and personal.
-- Kara Luger
Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown: New York) $23.95/hardcover