"The past was a dark place, a man's world"
This quote taps into the heart of Atkinson’s achingly cynical novel,
in which tragedy begets loneliness and quiet desperation is balanced against an intimacy in people’s lives. Most
of the action takes place in Leeds where, in one harrowing night in 1975, a social worker, a policewoman, and a reporter are unexpectedly held to account for a prostitute’s violent murder almost a
decade before the Yorkshire Ripper was caught with a large back catalogue of murders to his name.
The novel opens as constable Tracy Waterhouse and her colleague, Ken Arkwright, are called to a flat in Lovell Park where they find the bloody, decomposing body of local down-on-her-luck prostitute Carol Braithwaite. Carol’s ten-year-old boy is standing in the hallway when they break in,
filthy and nothing but skin and bone. Tracy holds his weightless little body and strokes his dirty hair;
years later, all Tracy can think of is the chaos of that flat and Carol’s poor, sodden son.
Recently retired from the force, Tracy has taken a job as head security officer at a shopping center in
downtown Leeds. Overweight, aging, and far from being lashed to the mast of social convention, Tracy doesn’t reckon on stumbling into Kelly Cross and her screaming daughter, Courtney. A prostitute, druggie and thief, Kelly
storms through the main drag like a woman possessed, dragging poor Courtney behind her.
As Tracy’s encounter with Kelly and Courtney awakens long-buried memories, Atkinson’s older character, fading actress Tilly, is slowly losing her mind. Meanwhile, Jackson Brodie travels the country, reading emails from New Zealander Hope McMaster as she frantically searches for a hint of her past. Only social worker Linda Pallister can unlock the puzzle and enlighten Jackson about Hope's origins, origins somehow connected to the murderous events that took place three decades ago.
The twist is in the secret history of Lovell Park and the group of detectives forced to reluctantly recall the scene from years ago, including Tracy’s colleague Barry Crawford,
made broken and bitter by the passage of time. As Hope and Jackson pull their threads, the tied fabric of 1975 starts to unravel.
A little girl sings a song of innocence while a boy is left to starve in a flat
where his mother lies dead, her body rotting.
Much of the tension is fuelled by the memories of this crime sustained throughout the years by the machismo, old boys' club of the West Yorkshire Police Department. The drama is unremitting, stirred up though Tracy and her decision to take on Courtney at Kelly's expense. Tying dead prostitutes to the past and the present, Linda, Tracy and Barry become bit-players in the drama of Carol Braithwaite’s death, climbing into a Pandora's box of regrettable mistakes.
There is no scarcity of blame as Atkinson's gritty story delves deep into the psyche of its damaged characters. So much more than a police procedural, this novel is really an existential musing about the nature of identity as the shards and chips of Tracy, Tilly and Jackson's memories resemble a cracked mirror of the past. Atkinson’s writing shines in this murky, introspective foray into the unforgiving nature of guilt and forgiveness.