Kate Atkinson makes a dazzling return to crafting short stories, and a fraught sports memoir explores the mental toll of elite cricket and family legacy
Normal Rules Don’t Apply by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £18.99)
Credit: BBC/House Productions/Nick Wall. Kate Atkinson's new novel, Normal Rules Don't Apply, shares themes with her previous book, Life After Life
With some writers there might be quite a contrast between a new slim volume of short stories and an earlier, highly twisty 500-page novel.
In Kate Atkinson’s case, though, Normal Rules Don’t Apply has something significant in common with the bestselling, award-winning Life After Life (also adapted into a BBC drama series).
There, normal rules didn’t apply either, as Atkinson gave us dozens of possible lives as they might have been led by her heroine. Here, if anything, she takes the process further, by serving up a multiverse of possible worlds.
In the first story, a mysterious “void” starts covering the Earth for five minutes a day, killing anybody not indoors. In the second, Franklin, a TV producer and gambler, seems to be living in an entirely realistic modern Britain—until, that is, a horse speaks to him. In the third, a woman faces something even odder: the fact that she’s dead.
"Atkinson is clearly having a great time letting her imagination run wild"
It is, however, no coincidence that Franklin once wrote a novel entitled What If? where the narrative continually splits into the different outcomes that every little event could have produced.
That’s because the longer Normal Rules Don’t Apply goes on, the more it does a similar thing, with the people from one story reappearing in another, living very different lives—and the overlaps and contradictions between the 11 tales becoming ever more intriguing.
This summary, I realise, might make the book sound somewhat heavy-going. But that’s not how it reads at all.
If you wanted to give yourself a challenge, you could definitely treat the whole thing as a kind of riddle to be decoded—and probably enjoy doing it.
On the other hand, you could just relish the individual stories for their mixture of strangeness and the often very funny observations about recognisable everyday life against which the strangeness is set.
There are also any number of memorable characters—from a bona fide goddess to a couple not totally unlike Harry and Meghan—whom Atkinson conjures up in only a few sentences.
Most striking of all, though, is the abiding sense of infectious, slightly bonkers fun. Atkinson is clearly having a great time letting her imagination run wild—and my firm guess is that her readers will too.
Normal Rules Don’t Apply by Kate Atkinson is published by Doubleday at £18.99
Legacy by Nick Compton (Allen & Unwin, £20)
Credit: Harry Martin (Sydney Morning Herald), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Nick Compton struggled to live up to his grandfather, Denis Compton's legacy
As the grandson of cricket legend Denis Compton, Nick Compton had a lot to live up to—and, as this book makes wrenchingly clear, the fact that he never really managed it has caused him much distress.
In childhood, Nick was obsessed with cricket to the point of isolating himself from other boys.
Aged 12, he told his mother that if he didn’t get into the local club side, he “wanted to be put down like a horse”. When he was first selected for England in 2013, he characteristically decided that “the entire reason for my life had been vindicated”.
Nick is certainly aware of the dangers of such single-mindedness, with cricket “a constant torture of performance anxiety”. But, as he also acknowledges, identifying a problem doesn’t mean you can solve it, and for his whole career “the only good mental health I felt was scoring runs”.
In recent years, there’ve been several books about the cost of being an elite sportsperson, and Legacy is a fine, if sometimes painful addition to the list—not least since some of the revelations seem inadvertent.
For all his many moments of self-knowledge, Compton’s frequent blaming of others (captains, selectors, coaches) for his failure to reach what he considers his full potential doesn’t always convince.
He’s particularly indignant, for example, when he’s dropped for Joe Root, suggesting that this was because his own face didn’t fit—rather than say, because Root was a better cricketer.
Yet in the end, these blind spots only add to the book’s authenticity as a self-portrait, and as a glimpse into the world of high-level sport more generally.
And here, in his 16th and last Test, is how it all came crashing down for Nick Compton…
"Aged 12, he told his mother that if he didn’t get into the local club side, he 'wanted to be put down like a horse'"
"It was one of those days. The sun was shining down on Lord’s on the first morning of the third Test against Sri Lanka in June 2016, the packed house lathered
England had already bullied a 2-0 series lead and the home crowd wanted more of the same. The other interest was in me—‘Nick Compton, a man with plenty on his shoulders’, as one media story observed, because this was my last chance to remain a Test cricketer, and everybody around the ground knew it.
It should have been perfect. This was the ground where my grandfather, Denis, had become a legend of the game.
But it wasn’t.
Alastair won the toss and batted. I was due in at number three, but instead of itching to get out there, I sat watching with increasing dread as he and Alex Hales put on a
half-century stand until Alex was caught behind.
half-century stand until Alex was caught behind.
This was it then. I tried to gee myself up. I had faced moments like this before and triumphed. But the sense of dread remained as I walked through the famous Long Room and descended from the pavilion into the sunshine.
"I had never felt this way before. Normally I was steely and resolved, but the fight had gone"
I walked through the picket gate and looked up, trying to drink in the wonderful atmosphere to settle my nerves. Should I look at the Denis Compton grandstand? I wondered. No, I decided.
Grandad’s feats suddenly hung like a shadow rather than a source of inspiration. At that moment, on a stage built for the name Compton to shine, something had changed inside me.
I blocked the last two deliveries of Herath’s over and then watched Alastair play out a maiden. As I waited for Herath again, a thought flashed through my mind:
I can’t do this any more.
Patience and resilience, the ingredients of my success, were suddenly monotonous. The thought shocked me. My brain had gone and I wanted to walk off the ground. I was shot. Useless. My body was screaming at my brain, ‘What’s going on?’
I felt like a marathon runner exhausted at the start line thinking about the 26 miles ahead of him. It was heartbreaking, battling with myself in the middle of Lord’s, in front of thousands of people including my father. It was as if the 25,000 spectators could all see what had just gone on inside my head.
I had never felt this way before. Normally I was steely and resolved, but the fight had gone. Somehow I pulled myself together and managed to get off the mark with a single, but the dismay had set in as I defended without conviction, almost hoping that a delivery would get past me and end the misery.
I got my wish two overs later when Lakmal pitched one up and the ball moved ever so slightly away. I wasn’t far enough forward and was caught behind. I felt the sorry silence as I walked off the ground.
The runaway train had finally come off the tracks."
Legacy by Nick Compton is published by Allen & Unwin at £20
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