The Audiobook equivalent of the Double Take: Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Hachette Audio, 2011), presented me with a somewhat unique problem. (I know, I can hear all of you purists out there already: “Unique does not admit of qualification. A thing is unique or it isn’t. It cannot be ‘somewhat unique.’” Blah, blah, blah. Just let me explain, okay?)

I had to listen to this book twice. Now, lots of books repay going back to again and again. I’ve read or listened to Ulysses probably half a dozen times and will revisit it again soon. (By the way, happy belated Bloomsday to all the Joyceans out there. This is being written on June 17, the day after that memorable day in literary history.) But in the case of Atkinson’s book, I’m talking about listening to it again right after I had finished it the first time. Immediately. A double take.

I’m not quite sure why. The book’s plot, while complicated, is not prohibitively tortuous. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, but plenty of books are highly populated. The style is transparent enough. Atkinson is neither obscure nor evasive, although not everything gets fully explained. For example, one of the major plotlines involves the impulsive “purchase” of a four-year-old child by former police officer Tracy Waterhouse from her abusive mother, a prostitute named Kelly Cross. Later in the book, Cross is murdered, but by whom or for what reason is never cleared up. That happens to a number of prostitutes in the book. Peter Sutcliffe, the all-too-historical “Yorkshire Ripper” who murdered at least thirteen women in the late seventies – many of them prostitutes and several of them in Leeds, where much of the action in this book takes place – is referred to several times in Started Early. Did he kill Kelly Cross? She’s not among his official victims, but then, an imaginary character wouldn’t be, would she? We also get a general running motif of the poor treatment of women. It is just one of many motifs. One of the most prominent is the loss (or lack) of children – offspring and siblings – and various efforts to make up for those losses.

Another motif, or maybe it’s a theme, is the abuse of low-level authority. Police, bureaucrats, parents – even pet owners – exhibit various levels of cruelty and the heroes of Started Early all have their hands full trying to oppose these forces.

You can probably tell that I’m dancing around the plot here. First of all, of course, I don’t want to be a spoiler, although the plot in this case is not what really drives this narrative. In fact there are problems with the plot. Some of the coincidences, for example, are beyond reasonable. One of the main characters (in my mind there are actually three in this book: Tracy Waterhouse; semi-retired private investigator Jackson Brodie; and addled TV actress Matilda “Tilly” Squires) speculates that he has entered an alternative universe, which is perhaps meant to excuse much of the weirdness in the book. Well, Nice Try, Ms. Atkinson, but some of the coincidences are still hard to swallow. For example, Mr. Brodie has an alter ego, also named Jackson (although his surname) who is engaged in a search that closely parallels Brodie’s. On another occasion, Brodie literally almost collides with Tracy Waterhouse after she runs out of the woods and into the path of his car on the road. The fact that Brodie doesn’t recognize Tracy, even though she is one of the people he is trying to locate, further emphasizes the extreme irony of the situation. Then there is the climatic scene at the train station where all three main characters converge in an unlikely encounter. Or, Close Encounter . . . .

Then there are the connections between Tilly and Brodie due to the TV show of which Tilly is part of the cast. It’s a police show called Collier, and it just so happens that Brodie’s most recent girlfriend, Julia, is also in the cast. Oh, yeah, and earlier Brodie encounters Tilly at a shopping mall where she has been detained on suspicion of shoplifting. At the same shopping mall, Tilly, along with Tracy, has witnessed Kelly Cross berating her young daughter Courtney just before Tracy confronts Kelly and buys the kid.

I could go on.

But despite all this, I loved this book. One of the main reasons I loved it goes back several paragraphs here, to my favorite author, and, well, the greatest writer of the 20th Century, and maybe any century, James Joyce. Why, you ask? Well because much of the narrative of Started Early is composed of the stream-of-consciousness reporting of the main characters. And I swear, with their movements around the landscape and their various internal monologs, parts of this book are comparable to, well, say, the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses.

Much of this is also attributable to the superlative reading of Graeme Malcolm. His tone is pitch-perfect. If he made any mistakes, I couldn’t detect them. He doesn’t seem to go out of his way to adjust his reading to account for different sexes and ages of the characters, yet they all seem to have distinctive voices. It is a miracle of narration. Well, okay, not a miracle. But quite a fine performance.

The other literary echo, namely the title, is a little more problematic. It comes from the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem. Now I like Emily Dickinson, but I have to say that this is one of her poems that isn’t exactly available to me. There must be some relevance, but it’s over my pay grade.

Finally, I noticed on Kate Atkinson’s Facebook page that the BBC is going to produce a TV version of the first book in the Jackson Brodie series – Case Histories.

So, now I have to download that and the other books in the series so that I can be all smug and unctuous about it when the series reaches the U.S. “Ah, yes, well, sure, the show is excellent, but not nearly as good as the book, which I read long before most Americans even heard of Kate Atkinson . . . .”

Hey, I’m not getting paid to do this. I should at least get to be insufferable.

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