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Onyx reviews: When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Who exactly is Jackson Brodie, the protagonist of two previous novels by Kate Atkinson (Case Histories, One Good Turn)? He's a newlywed, but he's best described by what he used to be—a former soldier, a former cop and an erstwhile private investigator. His need to do even that job has been made redundant by a recent inheritance from one of his former clients. He's also a former husband, ex-boyfriend and a struggling father. However, as a woman he encounters on a back road tells him after he offers her a lift: he's heading in the wrong direction.

Though the woman's comment is the simple truth, her statement has a note of prescience. Once Brodie gets back to the highway and finds the train station after a long journey to acquire a snippet of hair from a young boy in a playground, he boards the wrong train and ends up going north to Edinburgh instead of to London as he planned. As if that weren't bad enough, the train hits a stalled car on the tracks and derails.

Atkinson seems fascinated by how seemingly random incidents and choices lead to significant encounters. Did a subconscious urge inspire Brodie to take a train that would have, under ordinary circumstances, delivered him to the city where his ex-lover works for the police department? What perverse fate placed the driver's license of a wanted criminal in his pocket? In Atkinson's world, there's no such thing as coincidence. Or, perhaps, everything is coincidence.

Her novels are fascinating studies in how apparently isolated and parallel storylines (and, therefore, lives) end up on trajectories that bring them together in the end. As a reader, it is sometimes tempting to say that coincidences such as the ones that occur in her books are beyond belief when, in fact, things like these happen in real life all the time. It's just that not many writers are gutsy enough to hang entire novels on such happenstance.

Brodie's errant journey takes him into the midst of several mysteries. They aren't crimes in the beginning, exactly. However, the potential for crime is present, as it is in anyone's life. It also brings him back into contact with his ex-girlfriend and a woman he first encountered in a wheat field many years earlier.

In Edinburgh, two women are surviving in the aftermath of terrible crimes. One is Dr. Joanna Hunter, the former young girl whose family was slaughtered, as described in the book's opening pages. The man who killed her mother, sister and baby brother was caught, convicted, and sentenced to thirty years in prison. The punishment sounds like a life sentence, but it isn't, not to an eight-year-old girl. Having served his time, the killer is about to be released. DCI Louise Monroe, Brodie's ex-lover, alerts the woman because the media are planning to cover the killer's release and she will probably be thrust into the unflinching eye of national attention. She's about to be victimized a second time.

Monroe is also working on the case of another woman whose family was slaughtered. In this case, however, the killer is still at large and Monroe is convinced that he has plans to finish the job. The woman isn't given a chance to recover from the trauma—she's in fear for her life and has become more or less a prisoner in her own home.

DCI Monroe is also freshly married, though she has begun to second guess her choice. Her husband is apparently perfect, but Monroe has convinced herself that she is being defined by who she thinks she is versus who she thinks he wants her to be. 

When Dr. Hunter comes up missing, the only person who seems to care at first is Reggie Chase, a resourceful and intelligent sixteen-year-old orphan who looks even younger. Her mother died while on vacation with a boyfriend, leaving Reggie to fend for herself, which she does quite well. Amazingly well—the least credible part of the novel, in fact. 

Reggie works as a nanny for Dr. Hunter and regularly visits a terminally ill, retired teacher who has taken over the task of continuing her education after she drops out of school, but otherwise she wanders through the world a few inches below the sightlines of most adults. She is an expert at concocting stories that deflect attention from her. Few people know that she's an orphan, and she still lives in her mother's flat, but she happens to be at her tutor's house the night the train derails, virtually in the back yard. In the wreckage, she discovers Jackson, seriously injured. When the police don't take seriously her concerns about Dr. Hunter's unexplained absence, she turns to the only other adult she knows who might help—the man who's life she saved.

As unlikely as she is, Reggie is the glue that holds the novel's disparate threads together. She is precocious, and as sharp as a knife. More than any of the adults, she appears to realize what life is truly all about, and often utters tidbits of wisdom when everyone else seems to have forgotten she's around.

When Dr. Hunter's disappearance finally does attract police attention—thanks primarily to Reggie's persistence—they focus their suspicions on her husband, who has been involved in some shady business deals and is currently under investigation for allegedly torching one of his properties for the insurance.

The criminal aspect of the novel kicks into high gear late in the game, abetted in no small part by Reggie's delinquent older brother and a gang of mobsters from Glasgow who have designs on expanding into Edinburgh.

However, the book isn't about the solution to these crimes. They continue to stack up, although a few of them are resolved. Not always "by the book." More than anything else, When Will There Be Good News? seems to be about regret over bad choices, mostly in love. Atkinson doesn't exactly suggest that the future will be any better for the affected characters, either. This is the way things are, she seems to say. Make the best of it.

For the most part, her characters do. 

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