Aug 10, 12
Read in August, 2012
In Kate Atkinson's mystery novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, the story begins with two acts that echo each other, each of them almost morally inevitable. A retired police investigator, Tracy Waterhouse, sees a down-and-out woman in the mall, dragging and haranguing a small child, and on an impulse, runs up to her and offers to buy the child. The woman agrees and hands over the child. In the echo act, another retired police investigator, Jackson Brodie, sees a man abusing a small dog in public, dragging it around on a rope and kicking it. Jackson does what most onlookers would fantasize about doing; he punches the man in his stomach and takes the dog away from him. The story that follows, though, is not necessarily the cause-and-effect outcome of either act. Rather it's the story of the past that led up to these acts of rescue. Thirty years earlier, a prostitute is murdered, and her son is left alone with her body for three weeks until someone finds them. Then the boy disappears, his existence erased. In another place, a girl is kidnapped. And somewhere else, Jackson Brodie's eighteen-year old sister is murdered. The ins and outs of the injustices and wrongs committed, the perpetrators revealed or left disappeared or unknown, and the tale about the unexpected reckonings that bubble up in the present are the grist of the mystery laid out in Atkinson's novel.
This is a story built of echoes and resonances. “Writing for me is quite a plastic form, a kind of mental sculpture,” Atkinson said in an interview with Scott Butki, included at the back of the book. I like this description of the novel form as plastic mental sculpture; it provides a fitting visual for the experience of reading Started Early, Took My Dog. For in this novel, the mystery story about what happened thirty years before to a prostitute and her child and whether anyone would be held accountable, is merely the frame that holds up the sculpture and not the substance itself. Intertwined around this central mystery are the twin transgressions, the kidnapping of a child, the kidnapping of a dog, and together they sound a harmony of emotional resonances with all the other missing children, either kidnapped, miscarried, aborted, or longed for but never realized. With it comes the strong sense of one's lifetime waning, of being called to account for what you did or didn't do on those fateful occasions when you thought of yourself as merely an innocent bystander. How fateful occasions wrought upon someone who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, plant themselves in the soul and birth inevitable choices. This is not a young person's novel about venturing down the path less traveled, but a novel about accounting for oneself after much has been said and done, seeing clearly the road not taken as only hindsight is able to identify, and attempting a quiet redemption while there's still time.