Note: This review deals candidly with the ending of the novel. If you want to avoid “spoilers,” you should avoid reading the second half of this review.
After a very slow start, I did end up enjoying parts of Human Croquet, though I have several reservations that I will detail below. The protagonist of this novel is Isobel Fairfax, who is growing up in an eccentric family in postwar England. Her parents are Gordon and Eliza Fairfax, who met during an air raid during the war, when Gordon rescued Eliza from a burning building. Eliza dies while Isobel and her brother Charles are still children, and Gordon develops amnesia and disappears for several years. During this time, Isobel and Charles are cared for by Gordon’s mother, whose name is “the Widow,” and his sister Vinny. With the exceptions of Gordon and Eliza, the adults in this novel are stereotypes pulled from British children’s fiction. The less horrific among them are Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins; others seem like duplicates of the Dursleys from Harry Potter, Mr. Gradgrind from Hard Times, or any Roald Dahl character over the age of 17. I am not suggesting that Atkinson created these stereotypical characters unintentionally – I think she did it on purpose, but I still found it a little annoying.
The Fairfaxes live next door to the Baxters, each of whom has one character trait. Mr. Baxter is the headmaster of the local school and is known for brutally beating any person, student or otherwise, who is close enough to grab. Mrs. Baxter’s one trait is being Scottish. Audrey Baxter, who is Isobel’s age, is timid and retiring and always looks like she is about to fade into the background.
In this novel, fading into the background is a thing that sometimes happens. Every so often, Isabel looks around and notices that her house is decorated in an unfamiliar way. She stands there and watches for a while, concluding that she has briefly entered the past (on one occasion, for example, she sees her father and her aunt Vinny as children). These are the “Shakespearean time warps” promised on the book’s back cover, which are the primary reason I read the book. The only thing that makes the “time warps” “Shakespearean” is the fact that Shakespeare once lived in a house on the same land where the Fairfax’s house now stands. I don’t have much patience for who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays conspiracy theories, but I vaguely recall that there’s a Fairfax involved in some of these stories – a rich patron, maybe – and I’m sure that Atkinson was working with this as source material.
The stretch of this novel that I enjoyed the most is the 50-or-so pages in which Isobel lives the same Christmas Eve over again. In each iteration, she wakes up to see her pink party dress hanging on the back of her door, but each day she is confronted with a different series of choices. Once she ends up at a party, where she is almost raped, passes out drunk, and then goes for a drive with Malcolm Lovat, the boy she likes, who skids on ice and dies. On another day, she gets the pleasures of watching Mrs. Baxter kill Mrs. Baxter and then help Mrs. Baxter and Audrey bury him in the yard. There is also a mysterious baby around during this part of the novel. This book is weird.
I don’t mean to be condescending toward Kate Atkinson, who by now has a distinguished career, but this novel strikes me as a dress rehearsal. I know from reading the jackets of her other novels that Atkinson likes to play around with time – with segments of time playing themselves out over and over again, with certain themes recurring. I don’t this novel succeeds, but I do think it was probably necessary for Atkinson to write it while she was teaching herself to work with these sorts of experimental structures – and that’s fine. I actually think there’s a lot to be learned from reading the early works of authors who have proved themselves to be excellent, even if the early works are not excellent in themselves.
But I do have a couple of other, unrelated critiques. First, I was a little annoyed that this book uses the “but it turned out it was just a dream” plot device. Late in the novel, we learn that many of the crazy things that happen in the second half of the book, including the arrival of the mystery baby and all the antics Isobel experiences during her Christmas Eve time warp are explained by the fact that Isobel was in a coma and was having vivid dreams. While I suppose this device is consistent with the other games Atkinson plays with storytelling in this novel, I think the “dream” device is so old and overplayed that it should be off limits by now.
Second, all the flitting in and out of the present time ended up doing little for the plot. Nothing of substance ever happens to Isobel in the past, and while we are led to believe that sometimes people in the vicinity of the Fairfax house sometimes “just disappear,” this didn’t end up being part of the novel’s primary plot. For a long time, it seemed as if Eliza Fairfax had “just disappeared” when she went into the woods and disappeared, but we later learn first that Isobel and Charles found her body “with her neck all stretched out” (I immediately thought she had disappeared into the past, been hung as a witch, and then her corpse had come back into the present – but perhaps I have read too much Diana Gabaldon) and second that Gordon – Eliza’s husband and Isobel’s father – killed her. He was deeply in love with her but was upset because she hated his mother and sister so much and had become obsessed with the idea that she was having affairs, so on impulse he killed her one day in the woods while they were waiting for Vinny to come back from peeing. The fact that he killed her in this way is not the part that bothers me – and his guilt from this incident helps to explain how detached Gordon is as a character – but it seems as if Atkinson went to some length to set up the idea that sometimes people in this region just disappear, and then when a character did just disappear (or seemed to, to the protagonist) she went out of her way to give that disappearance a rational explanation. I do know that Atkinson’s time games are not TIME TRAVEL in the usual sense, and perhaps I was expecting something that this author is not inclined to deliver.
Finally, my last complaint about this novel is the fact that it has a Central Guiding Metaphor: the “human croquet” of the title. One of Mrs. Baxter’s coping devices while married to her horrible husband is to reminisce about when she was a girl and her family always played organized party games. One of those games was Human Croquet. The idea behind the game is that some players are hoops, and they stand with one other character, holding their hands up to form an arc à la London Bridge, while some participants (the “balls”) are blindfolded. A third group of players are the actual players of the game; their job is to get the “balls” lined up and then tell them to move forward until at some point they tell them to stop. The rules from that point on are the same as the rules of ordinary croquet. I do understand what Atkinson is going for here: that in some ways we are all “balls” being blindfolded and aimed by forces we don’t understand, and that perhaps we are all the playthings of gods or other large, powerful creatures. Shakespeare, who is alluded to often in this novel, says as much in King Lear. But in general I disapprove of Central Guiding Metaphors. Don’t get me wrong – I spent my college years trying to write fiction containing CGM’s (a habit that was quickly humiliated out of me when I went to grad school), which means that I’m as guilty as Atkinson is but also that I know of whence I speak. Non-Guiding Peripheral Metaphors can be great, and if Atkinson had chosen a different title (almost anything would have been better) and just woven the human croquet into the plot, where readers would have been free to notice its significance or not, the device could have worked just fine. But the minute it was placed in the title, it became a CGM and is therefore something of which I can’t approve.
I don’t exactly recommend this novel, though after the first hundred pages I did read it with quite a bit of interest. I plan to read Atkinson’s more recent novels soon, and I anticipate that I will enjoy those quite a bit more.