Bridgette Redman's Reviews > One Good Turn

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
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's review
Feb 12, 2012

really liked it
Read in October, 2006

Kate Atkinson is not a genre writer. Her latest novel, One Good Turn may center around a crime, but she breaks all conventions as she tells the tale. Classifying it as a crime novel would severely miss the point.

One Good Turn opens with an act of road rage and an unlikely rescue. Atkinson then sweeps out her net and circles around the event to ensnare the lives of witnesses and those touched by the event. As she circles, Atkinson takes us into the minds of each of her myriad characters, swiftly changing points of view to introduce her readers to vastly different personalities who share some surprising similarities.

Who do we meet in this book’s journey?

The story starts out from the vantage of the victim of the road rage, a highly competent man without a real name who remains a mystery figure for most of the book. In fact, in a highly deliberate move, Atkinson muffles the very character who sparks all of the other connections in the book. His story begins, but the rest of the novel gets caught in the tangled webs of:

Jackson, the ex-everything who is still uncomfortable in his new role as the idle rich and the patron of his actress girlfriend’s doomed theater endeavor

Gloria the 60ish wife of a wealthy scoundrel, she thinks that an eye for an eye is the way justice should be even if it isn’t yet

Louise a police inspector and single mom for whom the price tag of love has left her deeply burdened and heavy with emotional debt

Martin a hapless writer of crime fiction who is inoffensive, bland, and a pushover too afraid of his own dreams to make anything happen and haunted by a fear of Cosmic Justice

Swirling around these characters are Jackson’s diva-ish girlfriend Julia, the spoiled and selfish comedian Richard Mott, the Russian dominatrix Tatiana, the innocent maid and scientist Sophia, the confused teenager Archie, and the beast-like, bat-wielding Terry.

Generally speaking, everything that Atkinson does with this novel in her hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, has a highly deliberate feel to it. There are layers heavy with symbolism, whether it is in the Rolex watch which is continually haunting Martin, the memory sticks belonging to two different characters which hold the encapsulation of two different lives, the Russian maytroshka dolls, or the pink-infused Favors cleaning company.

Atkinson also uses food as both a metaphor and a defining characteristic for several of her characters. Gloria has spent a lifetime honing cooking skills that would make Julia Child jealous. She finds herself judging people who take less care about their food and throw it together as if it were something unimportant. Martin is a vegetarian because he can’t bear to hurt any living creature, but in his fantasy/dream life, he is always a carnivore, eating hearty meats in a very British style. Then there is Jackson who can cook only five dishes, but looks upon freshly-prepared food as having a restorative power.

Also, although the characters are distinctly drawn with highly individualistic traits, they have surprising similarities that tie them together. As each character reveals the circumstances and situations that motivate him or her, we see repeated occurrences of rough childhoods, lost siblings, careless cruelty, anger at the ill-treatment of animals, ambivalent relationships with parents/siblings/children, easy access to money, stress about lack of money, and casual sexual encounters with life-changing consequences.

One Good Turn often hovers on the edge of absurd even while being written in a firmly realistic style. There are many paradoxes of this sort in the book. The artist whose work is so far out on the fringe that it fails to connect with anyone lives a life that is ultimately prosaic and lacking in originality or true passion. Meanwhile, the artist who has produced bland, commercial work is living an eventful life that far outstrips his fiction for adventure and oddities.

Atkinson also creates some unusual pairings, throwing together opposites and people who ought to be naturally repelled from each other. She plays with what happens to relationships when the world gets topsy-turvy.

The book is not a quick read. Its 418 pages are filled with lots of flashbacks, switches between stories, and a sometimes plodding trip through memories that leave the reader hanging just when a particular story line starts to get interesting. Despite the sometimes slow going, Atkinson does ensure that there is a payoff for the reader that sticks with it to the end, throwing out a few surprises even while leaving some questions and storylines unanswered.

Whether one good turn deserves another or not, Atkinson gives us a story in which karma does visit the inhabitants of her world in often unexpected, though seemingly just manners.

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