“Everything in the whole world seems capable of turning into something else”
Human Croquet has everything one needs from romance to wars, food and murder – and a lot more. Atkinson’s second novel is full of unexpected twists and turns. Set in the familiarly sounding Arden, Isobel Fairfax’s narrative shows how she grows up in a dysfunctional family, whose history is a lot more complex than it seems at first. Izzie’s monologue and thoughts also take turns with parts of her antecedents’ stories and tales but before going any further, first, a proper introduction to this wonderful author’s work is due.
Kate Atkinson, critically acclaimed contemporary British author, has published ten novels in the past two decades, after more than a decade of writing short stories. Despite her success as an established writer, she has received her share of the double critical standard. As a woman whose works deal with debated issues of harsh reality – including pieces that deconstruct the sanctity of marriage, the family and the ideology of Englishness – she is seen by the “[p]atriarchal tradition of criticism (Parker 77) as a threat to the existing social order. Emma Parker, who studies the author’s work in great detail, in her guide to Behind the Scenes remarks that “conservative reviewers branded the novel anti-family, feminist nonsense” (79). Atkinson’s recurrent portrayal of “miserable marriage and domestic drudgery” (79) shakes the foundations of patriarchal normativity.
Parker warns, however, that a “reductive focus on Atkinson's portrayal of the family” puts the label “entirely domestic” on her novels, whereas “connections between the personal and political” and the questioning of national identity should not be over-looked (80). While acknowledging these issues and being aware of their significance in her works, I still intend to concentrate on Atkinson’s novel from the perspective of domesticity. I shall focus on this aspect of Atkinson’s novel, in which received notions of domestic life are revised and subverted. I aim to investigate how Human Croquet depicts and demystifies crucial concepts humans build their lives on – love, family, and home – by exploring the treatment of traditional ideas of femininity, and other concepts related to the domestic sphere.
Atkinson herself claimed that Behind the Scenes, Human Croquet, and Emotionally Weird are a trilogy loosely based on the Alice stories (Parker 17), which fascinated her in her childhood and continue to have an influence on her even nowadays. At first it was surprising to see this text abandoned by critics but one would assume it is just the usual phenomenon that happens to second novels, even by critically acclaimed first-time novelists, like Atkinson. Having read only the first fifty pages of it, Human Croquet appears as playful as the game it is named after but as one gets more and more involved in the text, goes deeper and deeper in the forest, to use such an allusion form the novel itself, the story starts to become suffocating. The more one tries to get out of its choking, the more it grips one by the hand (or the neck) and pulls in all the more deeper.
At the beginning of the novel, on the introduction of Isobel, a reader familiar with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson’s first novel, would expect Human to follow in the footsteps of the first novel and be mostly about mother-daughter bonds – real or surrogate – but this text is as much about the relationships between fathers and daughters. Again, as Parker notes in her book, it is useless to accuse Atkinson of being a man-hater, since she exposes women to critique as much as she does it with men. As the story unfolds, several times and always differently, the events take a turn from being comic and tragic to purely tragic.
A brief and very reductive summary of the novel would be the following: the Greek mythical world gets entangled with a bit of Shakespeare while meeting a multitude of fairy tales and crime stories in a suburban setting. All of them together slip into alternative universes, parallel time zones and variations of the same plot, only to end up in reality full of incest, rape and murder, while performing a charmingly imperfect Bildungsroman. But evidently, Human Croquet has a lot more to offer. Atkinson shows her “linguistic virtuosity” (Parker 19) with a multitude of puns and wordplays that are often paired with worldplays. Besides the reworking of fairy tales and myths, the text is impregnated with philosophical meditations on the possibilities one can do to, with, or without time. The narrator muses how one can find time, save it, spend it, waste it, or kill it. According to the novel’s logic one can even make it as one character says: “I’ll make time.” to which Izzie thinks: What will she make it from – the fabric of time itself, or will she unravel it and knit it up anew?” (206).
Thus, the lack or the small amount of critical attention this novel has received does make sense, as this is a brilliant but extremely complex novel. It is so densely populated by a forest of themes that not only the reader but even a critic might lose the path. I believe the other important point that is related to the lack of attention is the choice of particular themes. Although in terms of figures, there only a few violent deaths, their impact seems to be immensely moving and at the same time terrifying, owing to the content behind appearances, which as we know by the end of the novel “can be deceptive” (Atkinson, Human 238).
I absolutely agree with Emma Parker, who claims that in “Atkinson’s work the idea(l) of the happy family is a dangerous illusion and home is always uncanny, marked by absence, loss, and trauma” (31-2). She is not trying to create fairy tales or delusions but she aims at exposing to critique what lies behind the facades of idyllic family life. I believe that it is an extremely important mission for feminist (though Atkinson herself claims she is rather a humanist) writers, critics, academics, activists and everybody else to educate others and make them aware of the possible hidden meanings underlying the societal constructions of the “happily ever after” ending of fairy tales, where life usually starts to disintegrate.
Atkinson, Kate. Behind the Scenes at the Museum. London: Black Swan, 1995.
---. Human Croquet. New York: Picador, 1997.
https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/kate-atkinson Web. 31 March 2016.
http://www.kateatkinson.co.uk/ Web. 31 March 2016.
Parker, Emma. Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Reader's Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002. Print.
For more information on the author’s biography, see https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/kate-atkinson or her website, www.kateatkinson.co.uk, which gives ample information on her awards. E.g. she won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize for Behind the Scenes at the Museum; Life After Life won the Costa Novel Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize.