Normal Rules Don't Apply: Stories
Kate Atkinson has never been a predictable writer. Her Jackson Brodie novels are complex thrillers, while the novel Life After Life is a surreal experiment in which the heroine dies and is reborn into another life several times. Although the surreal elements in the aptly titled Normal Rules Don’t Apply could make it seem closer to Life After Life, the stories in this collection include their share of puzzles and tangled relationships more typical of the mysteries. Atkinson almost rivals Dickens in her ability to create surprising connections between apparently disparate characters.
“The Void,” the first story of the collection, sets the pattern. What begins as a conventional description of the declining days of an old farmer and his dog changes abruptly as three chimes of a bell usher in a chilling end of the world scenario. From here on, all bets are off.
In the next story, “Dogs In Jeopardy,” we meet Franklin. Feckless and footloose at 38, he is on his way to bet on a horse race. The product of a chaotic childhood “composed of tedium and excess in roughly equal amounts . . . Brought up without a center or purpose, Franklin found it difficult to acquire either later in life.” He makes his way, amiable and aimless, through several stories up to the ominous final scene in the final story.
Along the way, he gets involved with the peculiar Kingshott family when he decides to marry a Kinghsott daughter. One of three sisters—Patience, Constance and Faith—his fiancée Connie (Constance) has a penchant for posing ethical dilemmas: If a building were on fire would Franklin save a cat or the cure for cancer? Franklin’s answers always lack sufficient conviction to satisfy Connie. In the end, the Kingshott women set him up in a scene right out of a thriller.
Interspersed are stand-alone stories including a horror tinged “Toy Story” and an immaculate conception. Atkinson links the contemporary world we know to the fantastic world of her characters by referencing Oprah or Strictly Come Dancing (the British version of Dancing With The Stars). One story, “Puppies and Rainbows,” appears to channel Meghan and Harry. (Atkinson is less convincing with an American character.) This has the intended disorienting effect. The world of mundane television and questionable celebrities still has room for talking animals and characters who burst out of fairy tales.
Franklin’s final appearance comes in “What If?” the last story, where he bumbles into a renegade fairy tale princess:
“And then I realized that I couldn’t find the door back to my kingdom.”
“Did you twist the ring three times?” Franklin asked.
“What do you think? It didn’t work.”
The particular fairy tale, “The Stolen Child,” links back to the work of an academic clergyman’s wife in the earlier story “Spellbound.” As Franklin and the princess talk, a bell starts to chime. The last line goes to a talking dog.