In a number of her novels, Kate Atkinson explores the idea of alternate possibilities, playing with “what if” scenarios for various characters. Showing she doesn’t need a full novel to explore the heady concept, Atkinson returns to that theme in Normal Rules Don’t Apply, a collection of eleven loosely linked short stories.
The first, “The Void”, is a masterclass in chilling mundanity as out in the countryside an old man and his equally old dog find their daily walk shockingly interrupted by a horrific sight. Meanwhile, his granddaughter, shopping in a small grocery store, is witness to the first occurrence of what will come to be known as “The Void” a seeming “blink” of the universe that kills off most life caught outside (think a Thanos-snap). Even this extraordinary event though is tethered to the day-to-day as the Void arrives in a regular, repeating pattern (a set amount of time that begins at a set time which moves forward five minutes day to day) so that people set their clocks and move about their day “normally.” This was one of my favorite stories in the collection, and while the Void does rear its head in other tales as well, I wish it had been a stronger, more consistent connection throughout.
Another highlight is “Blithe Spirit”, where a young secretary with some regrets wanders the streets in a semi-corporeal form (a fantastic passage shows her morphing from bodily form to soil to a building), unable to recall how she died until she witnesses her own autopsy (things do get better).
In “Spellbound” we meet the wonderfully voiced Florence, teen daughter of a town vicar who may just be lacking in the necessary faith and a mother who wrote a book entitled The Traditional Fairy Tale in the Context of a Subversive Female Hegemony. The story moves back and forth between the sharp-edged Florence (“I am the F-word”) and a Grimm’s-like fairy-tale until eventually the two worlds blur and blend.
This happens throughout a number of stories, with realism and fantasy intermixing, often with a single “regular folks” character moving throughout their mundane world until it is interrupted by the fantastic, as we see in the three stories above, but also in others where a horse at the track exhorts a gambler to bet on him or a recently retired, 15-year-divorced woman filling her life with online dating (not very well), book clubs, Pilates, and aquarobics who finds herself having an unexpected transformation.
Unfortunately, beyond the first three I detailed above and another toward the end that somewhat ties events together via an advertising executive who is also a god, one who has the chance to reset the world so it “works better,” the other stories weren’t as effective. The retiree story, “Shine Pamela! Shine!” ended strongly but the early part felt overly familiar. I had that same feeling about “Existential Marginalization,” which is basically Toy Story told from the perspective of Sid’s toys (lampshaded via one of the toy characters noting “Toy Story it ain’t). Several of the stories focus on the character of Franklin (first name Faustus) who is wandering aimlessly through life until becoming engaged to Connie. His luck changes from the first story (he’s the one the horse convinces to bet) to his last appearance, though I won’t say how so as to avoid spoilers. The stories are amiable enough, but that was about it. My least favorite involves a young American actress with a pill problem who, while working on a period soap opera gets involved with the prince of England. Not only did I find it the weakest story in the collection, but it was the only one that didn’t seem to fit at all, feeling more than a little shoehorned in.
But if only about a third of the stories really landed for me, they’re all written smoothly and fluidly, filled with sharp-eyed details and (mostly) strong dialogue. I also appreciated the meta aspect of the collection, as it’s easy to see how one can read these stories as having as much to do with the act of writing/storytelling as they do with the characters and plots at their core. Perhaps to highlight that reading, Atkinson gives us a slew of references to outside works via allusions to Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders, the aforementioned Grimm brothers, Jane Austen, and many, many more. The metafiction aspect helped redeem the collection as a whole, even if some of the individual stories disappointed. A mixed bag, therefore, as collections often are. That said, four excellent ones and no bad ones (well, maybe one) isn’t a bad mix.