by Kate Atkinson ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 12, 1997
Atkinson's follow-up to her Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996) is a self-consciously smart and mildly amusing family saga. Isobel Fairfax, age 16, narrates the busy goings-on at Fairfax Manor, an ostensibly cursed mock-Tudor in a suburb in northern England--although the events she describes may well be fantasies, embellished with tidbits from Shakespeare and Ovid and whatever else she's reading in school. The Fairfax family, as Isobel presents them, is a wildly dysfunctional cast of caricatures: There's sour Aunt Vinnie, who's always draped in cats; brother Charles, who's obsessed with alien abductions; and ineffectual dad Gordon and his plump second wife Debbie, who imagines that the sausages she's about to barbecue are moving about on their plate. When Isobel is not deep in lustful thoughts about Malcolm, the local gynecologist's son, she time-travels and has brief and remarkably uneventful interludes in earlier eras. And both she and Charles desperately miss their long-disappeared mum, Eliza. World War II hero Gordon plucked glamorous Eliza from the rubble of a London bombing, then brought her home to the Manor, where his widowed mother and Vinnie criticized her every move. Although besotted with his wife, Gordon couldn't break with his mother, and the marriage was strained. During a picnic, Charles and Isobel were left alone, only to toddle upon the body of their mother: Did Gordon kill her before disappearing for seven years to avoid the law, leaving his kids to repress the memory and get brought up by Vinnie? This is only one of many hyperventilating mysteries that Isobei sifts through: violent deaths, stolen babies, and sexual peccadilloes galore crowd Fairfax family history. Isobel's semi-jaded wisecracking serves up some mild laughs, but this exercise in over-deliberated cleverness, while never dull, is ultimately more exhausting than engaging.
Pub Date: May 12, 1997
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1997
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