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Kate Atkinson

Human Croquet

“I'm not myself," she said and then laughed maniacally, "but God knows who I am.”

The brilliant second novel from the author of the Whitbread prizewinner Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Human Croquet

Once it had been the great forest of Lythe. And here, in the beginning, lived the Fairfaxes, grandly, at Fairfax Manor.

But over the centuries the forest had been destroyed, replaced by Streets of Trees.  The Fairfaxes have dwindled too; now they live in ‘Arden’ at the end of Hawthorne Close and are hardly a family at all.

But Isobel Fairfax, who drops into pockets of time and out again, knows about the past. She is sixteen and waiting for the return of her mother - the thin, dangerous Eliza with her scent of nicotine, Arpège and sex, whose disappearance is part of the mystery that still remains at the heart of the forest.


‘Vivid and intriguing...a tour de force’  Independent

‘Wonderfully eloquent and forceful…brilliant and engrossing’  Penelope Fitzgerald, Evening Standard

‘Vivid, richly imaginative, hilarious and frightening by turns’  Observer


For Reading Group topics, see Resources.




Before the beginning is the void and the void belongs in neither time nor space and is therefore beyond our imagination.

Nothing will come of nothing, unless it's the beginning of the world. This is how it begins, with the word and the word is life. The void is transformed by a gigantic firecracker allowing time to dawn and imagination to begin.

The first nuclei arrive -- hydrogen and helium -- followed, a few million years later, by their atoms and eventually, millions more years later, the molecules form. Aeons pass. The clouds of gas in space begin to condense into galaxies and stars, including our own Sun. In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher, in his Annals of the World, calculates that God made Heaven and Earth on the evening of Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC. Other people are less specific and date it to some four and a half billion years ago.

Then the trees come. Forests of giant ferns wave in the warm damp swamps of the Carboniferous Era. The first conifers appear and the great coal fields are laid down. Everywhere you look, flies are being trapped in drops of amber -- which are the tears of poor Phaeton's sisters, who were turned by grief into black poplars (populus nigra). The flowering and the broad-leaved trees make their first appearance and eventually the trees crawl out of the swamps onto the dry land.

Here, where this story takes place (in the grim north), here was once forest, oceans of forest, the great Forest of Lythe. Ancient forest, an impenetrable thicket of Scots pine, birch and aspen, of English elm and wych elm, common hazel, oak and holly, the forest which once covered England and to which, if left alone, it might one day return. The forest has the world to itself for a long time.

Chop. The stone and flint tools signalled the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end. The alchemy of copper and tin made new bronze axes that shaved more trees from the earth. Then came iron (the great destroyer) and the iron axes cut the forest down faster than it could grow back and the iron ploughshares dug up the land that was once forest.

The woodcutters coppiced and pollarded and chopped away at the ash and the beech, the oak, the hornbeam and the tangled thorns. The miners dug and smelted while the charcoal-burners piled their stacks high. Soon you could hardly move in the forest for bodgers and cloggers, hoop-makers and wattle-hurdlers. Wild boars rooted and domestic pigs snuffled, geese clacked and wolves howled and deer were startled at every turning in the path. Chop! Trees were transformed into other things -- into clogs and wine-presses, carts and tools, houses and furniture. The English forests sailed the oceans of the world and found new lands full of wilderness and more forests waiting to be cut down.

But there was a secret mystery at the heart of the heart of the forest. When the forest was cut down, where did the mystery go? Some say there were fairies in the forest -- angry, bad-tempered creatures (the unwashed children of Eve), ill-met by moonlight, who loitered with intent on banks of wild thyme listening furiously to the encroaching axes. Where did they go when the forest no longer existed? And what about the wolves? What happened to them? (Just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there.)

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Reviews for Human Croquet

'Vivid, richly imaginative, hilarious and frightening by turns'


'Huge, exhilarating, loving and detailed eruption of a utterly intoxicating display of novelistic elan...big and joyous, literary and accessible...storytelling at its buoyant best'

The Scotsman

'Wonderfully eloquent and forceful Kate Atkinson goes at the same pace in her second novel as she did in her first...welcome back, wild north-easter...brilliant and engrossing'

Evening Standard

'Vivid and intriguing...fizzles and crackles along...a tour de force'


'Part ghost story, part murder mystery, this is an exquisitely written, literary novel that reads as compellingly as any thriller'


'A stunner of a second novel...a gutsy book, wrenched from the heart and written with tremendous force, immersing you in its strange, eccentric world'

Marie Claire

'The quirky imagination, subversive humour and instinct for domestic chaos that Atkinson displayed in her first novel...are rampantly evident again'

Publishers Weekly


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