Book Review: Case Histories

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Mysteries and twists and brooding P.I.’s, oh my!

I feel so passionately about this book, a member of my book club made a point to tell me how much better the discussion was because he could feel how excited I was to speak to other people about it. That’s how you know you’ve read something special.

Case Histories begins with, unsurprisingly, three case histories. We learn of the Land Family composed of parents and four young girls whose youngest sister, three year old Olivia, goes missing one evening while sleeping outside.

Next we learn of Theo Wyre, a solicitor whose entire life is his 18 year old daughter Laura. He loves her so much he keeps her on a short leash, getting her a summer job at his firm to keep her safe where she sadly meets her end, murdered by a stranger.

Finally we learn of young mother Michelle and her breakdown post childbirth, leading her to kill her husband with an axe.

These three stories are the base of the book and our main character, Private Investigator Jackson Brodie, is what links them all together. Members of the families involved in these cases hire Jackson for different reasons, and as he tries to solve their cases without getting emotionally involved, his own life starts falling apart (moreso than usual) and he’s pretty sure someone is trying to kill him.

Atkinson’s writing is really what won me over with this book, as she manages to write a enjoyable mystery while also keeping her main character a broken but good man, and allows the darkness within these stories to have levity. This isn’t a book about murder. This, at least to me, is a book about the depressing side of the human condition, and how the expectation we and our parents set for our lives strongly influence the people we become. It’s about how tragedy affects people in drastic ways, and how different people cope through trauma. The characters think and act like real humans do, even in the face of tragedy, and the book became so much more enjoyable when the moments of humor were at the forefront. Her characters are the perfect example of things you might think, but not say out loud. Is it terrible for a mother to love one child more than the others? Is it bad for a mother to wish the child she has would just disappear so she could get some rest? Sure, but any of us in those situations may think that at one point. Jackson himself is your classic Private Investigator. He’s brilliant at his job, yet fails in most other aspects of his life. He tries to help families who have lost the women in their lives, either to crime or mental illness, partially in order to bring some closure to families in the way his family never received. Jackson is too emotional but also smart and sarcastic enough to be likeable and carry a series into the future.

I loved the way Atkinson weaves these mysteries together. They don’t overlap. This isn’t a situation where the sibling in one case history is the murderer of another. That’s too unrealistic. Instead they overlap in the tiniest of ways; a neighbor or a person walking by. It’s understandable and coincidental, but allows for twists and turns you never saw coming even 5 pages prior. She also has a beautiful writing style. At one point, she mentions how hard it must be to be the sibling of someone who has died as forever you’re only seen as Jennifer, the sister of Laura, that wonderful poor girl who died. You have no autonomy. You’re always defined by the perfect memory of someone who no one remembers to have had flaws, and yet you’re held up against them as if it’s competition. It blew me away how simple her sentences can be, but they still stuck with me days later.

I just loved this book. If I had to rate it, it’d probably be a 4.5 but I’m rounding it up. I’d reread it and soak in all her beautiful writing now that I know the outcome. I can see now why people have been singing the praises of Atkinson for years, and I’ll absolute be reading more of her in the future.

A NOTE: There is a BBC adaptation of this book starring Jason Issacs as Jackson Brodie, who I felt fit the role beautifully. That being said they do change a bit from the book to the show and a lot of the humor is left missing. I would recommend reading the book first and watching the two part episode after, especially if some of the endings and reveals confused you. The show makes everything much more digestible than the book does, and it helped a lot of my book club patrons piece together the web of mystery in this title.

Title:  Case Histories
Author:  Kate Atkinson
Format:  Hardcover
Pages: 310
ISBN: 9780316740401

Three Descriptors: Character-Driven, Darkly Humorous, Complex

Read Alikes:
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
The Good Son by Russel D. MacLean
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

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