Emotionally Weird

Kate Atkinson, Author Little Brown and Company $25 (352p) ISBN 978-0-312-20324-5
When Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, beat out Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh for the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, a controversy in the British press ensued. But this imaginative and unconventional writer strikes back at her detractors in her third book (after Human Croquet), skewering the academic literary establishment with understated but spot-on humor, while telling an imaginative tale both outrageously funny and poignantly human: Tom Robbins meets John Irving. Euphemia ""Effie"" Andrews, a 21-year-old Scot and student at the University of Dundee, arrives at a remote, barren Scottish island to swap life stories with her mother, Nora. Effie comes with a slew of tales about the free-love and druggy chaos of her early 1970s college life, and also armed with questions for Nora, determined to learn the truth about their family history. That is, if Nora is her mother, and if any of the stories either of them tell are true (""My mother is a virgin""). These are unreliable narrators in top form, keeping readers guessing delightedly throughout. The author uses different fonts to intertwine several narratives, including hilarious entries from Effie's, and her classmates', novels-in-progress, while these excerpts are interrupted by Nora's snide commentary. Effie's academic hijinks may be a bit exaggerated, since she's slogging along on a paper on George Eliot while living with occasional electricity and a continually stoned boyfriend. But truly alarming things are happening in Dundee: someone is killing residents of a retirement home, and a strange woman is following Effie. While the narrators' constant backtalk can be tiresome, Atkinson's clever and sophisticated prose preserves the voices' sparkling energy. Readers may guess the family secret before it is revealed, but that doesn't steal any thunder from the unsettling and utterly original denouement. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/29/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
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