Kate Atkinson came to my attention when I picked one of her books, "One Good Turn", out of a pile my friend was about to give away. It looked like a substantial mystery, and I have a weakness for anything set in Scotland (Atkinson herself lives in Edinburgh). "One Good Turn" was as exciting as a mystery, with all the substance and craft of a great novel. I was so impressed I immediately went to library to check out two others: "Human Croquet", and her first novel, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum".
"Behind the Scenes at the Museum" was the winner of the prestigious Whitbread Award, and its enthusiastic tone follows Ruby Lennox from the moment of her conception throughout her life, delving back into the history of her family through "footnote" chapters. The title came to Atkinson in a dream, where the objects in a museum came to life and told their stories, and she uses these chapters to do the same thing. The reader gets to see the family's origins in a small Yorkshire town, the misery of a wife whose husband turns out to be a drunk, the effects of the Great War, life in the changing city of York (the place of Atkinson's own birth) and all the ways that family history shapes us and our children. In an interview with The Guardian, Atkinson says "
"Human Croquet" is slightly darker, but still involved in the realm of family, history, secrets, and set in a small town. Despite all the terrible things that happen, the reader is encouraged by the human power of survival and the love of mothers and friends.
"One Good Turn" opens with a mysterious and shocking scene in the middle of Edinburgh during the teeming Fringe Festival. An accidental rear-end collision results in a confrontation between the drivers and a life-threatening assault in front of a crowded theater. Each character's story arcs out from there, each involved with the crime and its aftermath, each character's inner life both complicated and realistic. "One Good Turn" is Atkinson's best showcase of her skillful rendering of human nature--she manages to be both compassionate and objective, showing all the quirks and flaws of a character while not judging or condescending, nor presenting a bleak picture of life.
Atkinson has several other books, including short fiction collections. Her work is the best combination of substantial and readable, and I highly recommend it.