My first review of the year was of Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum which prompted me to make more of an effort to read the back catalogues of my favourite authors. It therefore seems fitting to end the year with a review of Atkinson’s third novel ‘Emotionally Weird’ which was first published in 2000 and tells the story of Euphemia (Effie) Stuart-Murray and her mother Nora who live on a remote Scottish island. Effie is telling Nora about her life as a student in Dundee living with her Star Trek-obsessed boyfriend Bob. However, Effie also has questions about her family history and what she really wants is for Nora to disclose who her real father is.
Atkinson’s sense of humour has always shined through in her work but ‘Emotionally Weird’ is the first of her books I have come across which can be described as a comic novel. The depiction of life at the University of Dundee in the early 1970s supposedly bears little resemblance to the Scottish higher education institution at the time (Atkinson was a student there herself in the same era) but the eccentric characters and detailed scene-setting suggests Atkinson has a keen eye for the foibles of human behaviour in a similar environment, particularly where student politics and creative writing seminars are concerned.
The structure is more postmodern and experimental than I had been expecting, interspersed with extracts from Effie’s detective novel written during her studies and frequent interruptions from Nora while Effie is narrating her version of events, using a variety of typefaces to differentiate between each strand. However, Atkinson is also self-aware enough to recognise the obvious pitfalls of such techniques and uses the meta-storytelling to parody different genres and to make fun of pretentious literary criticism and academia without allowing the story to become overwhelmed with its own intricacy.
As with pretty much any comic novel, the real strength of ‘Emotionally Weird’ lies in the weird and wonderful cast of characters while the plot, such as there is, does run out of steam a bit towards the end with maybe a few too many knowing winks aimed at the reader. However, this does not detract from what is otherwise a cleverly constructed and often very funny book and I am now eagerly anticipating Atkinson’s new novel ‘Transcription’ which is due out in September in the UK.