Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
In a review of Kate Atkinson's 2015 novel A God in Ruins, Lesley McDowell asks whether her ‘warm and approachable characters [and] her smart … funny … compassionate prose count against her when it comes to intellectual literary awards like the Booker? Even the new literary prize, the Folio, ignored the more experimental Life After Life.’ While literary innovation need not be assessed by prize-winning recognition, accessibility is a key aspect of Kate Atkinson's fiction. Working in genres that might be defined as popular (or at least familiar to a wide readership) – detective fiction, family saga, English country house fiction, historical fiction – she writes novels that deeply engage the reader in emotions, plots and characters, so as to make for a pleasurable, joyful, moving, affirmative and affective reading experi-ence. From her early fiction onwards Atkinson has demonstrated a ‘postmodern’ interest in the ontological, in ‘world-making and modes of being’. In her first novels that was expressed in explicitly experimental strategies. In her later writing she inhabits narrative convention more comfortably while simultaneously interrogating it in more fundamental ways. In its underlying challenges to normative understanding of being in the world, her fiction has grown in daring and profundity.
Through charting shifts in her deployment of different fictional forms, this chapter suggests that Atkinson's emphasis on plotting, which emerges in the combination of familiar and defamiliarising constructions of ‘events’ and ‘characters’, is part of a strategic attempt to produce novels that can be pleasurable and meaningful yet disruptive in their challenges to our thinking about time, history, justice and love. Atkinson's trajectory of experimentation and her unique pattern of generic shifts, from the ‘Case Histories’ series to the recent Life After Life (2013) and A God in Ruins, reveal that although her novels have been described as combining an interest in ‘history, family and identity within a postmodern aesthetic’, the increasing sophistication of that dynamic has made them both more complex and more commercially successful.
Kate Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), was an immediate success, an acclaimed first novel easily situated within a 1990s interest in both metafiction and the historical. It also offered an analysis of the determinants – family, location, culture and imagination – of the individual life that is touching, comic and more traditionally associated with the concerns of realist fiction.