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Book Review: “Started Early, Took my Dog” by Kate Atkinson

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

CHEERS!

“Started Early, Took my Dog” by Kate Atkinson

First off, I must say that I absolutely adore Kate Atkinson and consider her one of my favorite authors. I read “Case Histories”, her first mystery featuring Jackson Brodie, about 7 years ago and was completely blown away. What is unique about Atkinson is that she started out writing literature and then segued into the mystery genre while the opposite is usually true for most authors. This is perhaps why I am so fond of her books: she never fully follows the formulaic rules of the mystery genre. Her mysteries still have a literary feel to them; they are not quite mysteries, not quite straight fiction.

Her novels do require patience, however, as these are not linear narratives. Kate Atkinson, in almost all of her books, starts off with more than a few seemingly unrelated events and characters and slowly but surely weaves them into a cohesive and compelling story throughout the course of the book and patience really does pay off. This technique, along with her dark humor, is what makes her great and why I greatly admire her work.

“Started Early, Took My Dog”, requires a bit more patience than usual, and the pay off is not as strong as with her previous novels featuring “hero” Jackson Brodie. I have to say I was fairly close to giving up on this book very early on. Until about page 40, after which things finally started to come together, I was introduced to about 4 different characters and 3 separate events, and honestly it felt like a large jigsaw puzzle was just dumped in front me and no one sorted any of the end pieces. None of the initial story lines grabbed me at all. And though I am also a huge fan of British fiction and am obviously familiar with Atkinson’s previous novels, the British slang and references to TV and celebrities I didn’t know completely threw me for a loop.

Interestingly, it was the introduction of the kidnapped kid Courteney that almost caused me to close the book for good, but she also became one of the characters (besides Tracy) that made me keep reading. As soon as the kid was announced, a kidnapped and probably abused kid no less, I felt an “ugh” coming on. A potentially whiny, grimy, troubled kid to deal with? No thank you. But Courteney is written as a four year old side-kick- and a silent one to boot- to a seasoned policewoman. Not much fazes her, her past is a complete mystery, but she’s not too bothered by it, and she became a delightful and original character to discover. This is, in fact, a KID book: every single character deals with missing, finding, losing, and loving children at some point.

One of the reasons I love Atkinson’s mysteries so much is that she doesn’t always stick to the tried and true formula surrounding the mystery genre. This book is the fourth in a series featuring lovable curmudgeon Jackson Brodie, now doing some soul searching and going through a slight existential crisis. Brodie is shaped by each experience and case he encounters and this carries him from book to book. Likewise, characters from the previous novels pop up at random throughout the books (Julia, a favorite from “Case Histories” is a constant presence in this book). Most mysteries have their hero leave the previous cases permanently behind. They approach the next one as if it’s a completely fresh start. But Jackson is literally haunted by each event he encounters in each book and it affects how he operates in the next one. The result is a feeling as though the reader is on the same journey as Jackson.

It works and doesn’t work. We are in the fourth book already, and I’m getting tired of Jackson’s sullen and brooding attempts to find his place in the world. If Jackson feels adrift, the reader certainly does as well. And themes from Jackson’s past, such as his constant remorse for his long dead sister and his failed marriages, make a reappearance in the novel but this is nothing new. I think we also dealt with his feelings towards his failed marriages in the last book, and he is seemingly always haunted by his sister. Jackson, this novel aside, pretty much racks up a failed relationship in each book. We are not without hope, however, that things are looking up at the end of the book (Atkinson literally ends the book with a poem about hope), and even though there are rumors swirling that this is the last novel to feature Jackson Brodie, I hope us fans of the series are in for some brighter pastures in the future.

Despite the grim plot and Jackson’s gloominess, Atkinson never fails to make me laugh. Her humor is dark, whip-smart, and so needed to break up the dire atmosphere surrounding the events in the book. Tracy is a likely match for Jackson in terms of humor, and I hope (there’s that word again!) that we see more of her in the future. Most of Atkinson’s language is a delightful mix of witty prose and beautifully constructed character studies that can wreck your heart.

My main disappointment with the book was the ending. The main “murderer” is a character barely introduced in the book, and I didn’t even feel a connection to him to care one way or another so the ending was quite anti-climatic. If the murderer was Barry, I think the ending would have caused more of a stir, especially for Tracy. As for her story, I like and dislike that it wasn’t wrapped up in a pretty bow. We still do not know who Courteney really is or how things will end up for Tracy and the kid she bought off a wayward crackhead. Atkinson hints we might see these two again, or there may be more to the story, but if she doesn’t continue with it in the next book then this ending is even more frustrating. Also, Tilly’s thread just felt out of place. Yes, she had some connection to the main characters, but out of all the story line threads, hers was the most “out there” and implausible.

I’m always grateful to come across the latest Kate Atkinson, and while this novel isn’t my favorite, she is truly a literary wizard with a mighty pen. I wish I could write half as well as she does!

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