Not the End of the World
by Kate Atkinson
Doubleday £12.99, pp248
Although Missy Clark is a nanny with a reputation - a kind of 'Marine Corps Mary Poppins' who is called in at the first sign of sniper fire - she adores her latest charge, a clever, enigmatic eight-year-old called Arthur, whose parents have strolled straight out of the pages of Heat magazine. His mother, Romney Wright, is a big-breasted model-cum-actress who is about to guest star in the rural soap, Green Acres. His father, Campbell Wright, is lead singer with the band Boak. Together, Missy and Arthur keep the world of celebrity firmly at bay. They spend their time visiting museums and demolishing cakes at Patisserie Valerie.
This genteel regime is interrupted only when the pair are summoned to Germany to join Boak (which, charmingly, is Scottish for vomit) on their European tour. The band's publicist, Lulu, puts together an itinerary for them: drivers, luxury hotels, myriad mobile telephone numbers. They will even travel on the Boak tour bus. 'What will that be like?' Missy asks. 'Extreme,' says Arthur with an old-man frown. Alas, Missy never gets to see Campbell Wright cavorting in his gas mask (Boak always wears gas masks in publicity photos). She and Arthur arrive in Munich only to find that Campbell and his cronies have disappeared into the ether.
And so the odd couple set out to see the sights. 'Arthur stayed awake for the whole of the BMW museum - he wasn't an eight-year-old boy for nothing - but he was asleep within minutes of going into the Residenz-Museum.' They have a lovely time, filling in breakfast cards and drinking hot chocolate, such a lovely time, in fact, that, back at the Lufthansa desk, it occurs to them that they do not necessarily have to return to Primrose Hill, to Romney and her tabloid antics. They buy a ticket for Dusseldorf. As they run for the plane, a hunting horn sounds. Arthur looks at Missy's feet. Her shoes have turned into silver sandals.
Missy, the nanny who - just maybe - turns into Artemis at the sound of a boarding announcement, is the heroine of one of 12 interlinked stories in this collection and, like her sparky bedfellows, she bewitches and confounds in equal measure. Atkinson's characters, be they young or old, slow-witted or highbrow, council estate or town house, have an otherness, a sense that they stand puzzlingly apart from the world around them, that stays with you long after you have finished reading about their exploits. Their quirks and tics, not to mention their jokes (Atkinson is so good at jokes) echo in your ears as if they were people you had met at a party but, through a fuzz of alcohol, can only dimly recall.
Elsewhere, Atkinson gives us dopey Eddie, a boy so obsessed with fish he would like to climb back down the evolutionary ladder and develop a set of gills; the lazy and haphazard Fielding Carter, a TV critic whose debauched lifestyle is finally derailed by a demonic doppelgänger; and earnest, abandoned, menopausal Pam who, on taking early retirement from her teaching career, unwittingly finds herself churning out hideous wedding favours - mini trugs filled with heather, pastel-coloured bombonières - for couples who, unlike her, have no desire to get married in brown, 'as if there'd been nothing really to celebrate'.
Not the End of the World kicks off with its weakest entrant - a tale of two women window-shopping while Rome (or Edinburgh) burns - but do not let this put you off. I cannot remember the last time a book of short stories left me so fizzing with admiration. Atkinson tap-dances her way across the page, her prose as playful as a puppy, full of wit and invention, packed with pathos and pop culture. I can think of very few writers who can make the ordinary (Buffy, Barbie, a tenement flat) collide with the extraordinary (cats as big as tigers, children conceived at the bottom of the sea) to such beguiling effect.
Like charms on a delicate bracelet, these minor masterpieces are strung together by a gloopy web of gossip and genetics - unlikely couplings, familial coincidences, dusty friendships. But while they often begin with the prosaic - at an awkward family supper or in a teenager's fetid bedroom - out of the corner of your eye you notice more strange things afoot. It is as if Atkinson is able to tap into the parallel universe whose gentle tug the rest of us do our best to ignore.
Her great gift is to render this universe in all its monstrous and magical Technicolor glory. She is a sorceress, to be sure, but the reassuring, straightforward kind who can make even the spellbound laugh out loud.