Kate Atkinson's 'Big Sky' - a morality tale written with dry wit and empathy

You don’t need to have read the first four Jackson Brodie books to enjoy 'Big Sky', but you will want to

08 September 2019 - 12:12 By Michele Magwood
'Big Sky' by Kate Atkinson.
'Big Sky' by Kate Atkinson.
Image: Penguin Random House

Published in the Sunday Times (08/09/2019)

Big Sky *****
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, R290

One of the best characters in Big Sky is a woman named Crystal Holroyd. Crystal drives a white Range Rover and has a little girl called Candy who she dresses as various Disney princesses. Crystal is, writes Atkinson, “a construction, made from artificial material - the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer lashes.” White-blonde hairpiece, fake tan. But if you assume Crystal is the bimbo she’s often called, you’d be wrong, because this is Kate Atkinson, and she has never written a predictable or superficial character in her long career. 

After an exceptional trio of World War 2 books: Life After Life, A God in Ruins and Transcription, Atkinson has brought Jackson Brodie out of furlough for a fifth and much-anticipated outing. A former soldier and policeman, Brodie now works as a private investigator. He’s gruff, a bit rough, with a harrowing backstory and a ragged patchwork of divorces. Like that other investigator on the other side of the pond, Jack Reacher, he’s been called a hero for men and women alike.

In Big Sky he has moved from Edinburgh to a seemingly quiet village on the coast of Yorkshire, where he part-parents his annoying teenaged son and follows straying spouses. Crystal hires him because she believes she is being followed, and not by her alpha male husband, and Brodie is snagged into a bigger crime scene. 

The story is, unfortunately, bang on-trend with its theme of paedophilia and sex trafficking, with many a reference to Jimmy Saville, but Atkinson writes with a dry wit and empathy that add many layers to this morality tale.

Gradually we learn the source of Crystal’s insecurities, her neurotic cleaning and tidying and the pampering of her little girl. Atkinson aces the snobbishness of the country club set and the slick, sickening deception that lures young eastern European women to the UK. There is a star turn by a compassionate old drag queen and a repulsive misogynistic comic, and a welcome return from an earlier book in the series of Reggie Chase, a young woman who is all grown up now and has become a cop.

You don’t need to have read the first four Jackson Brodie books to enjoy Big Sky, but you will want to. @michelemagwood