Human Croquet

By Kate Atkinson

9,504 ratings - 3.72* vote

New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the YearPart fairy tale, part mystery, part coming-of-age novel, this novel tells the story of Isobel Fairfax, a girl growing up in Lythe, a typical 1960s British suburb. But Lythe was once the heart of an Elizabethan feudal estate and home to a young English tutor named William Shakespeare, and as Isobel investigates the strange New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the YearPart fairy tale, part mystery, part coming-of-age novel, this novel

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Book details

Paperback, 352 pages
Original Title
Human Croquet
Edition Language

Community Reviews


i give it a three even though i enjoyed reading it in a four star kind of way. the three star means there are better books by her out there, but that this one is fun, if imperfect. and its a shame, because she really tells a good story. this one was just a little too ambitious with what it was trying to squeeze in, and there were too many storylines that either didnt connect gracefully, or had to be absorbed by inference. does that make sense?? i am inarticulate. towards the end it gets especially bumpy with several tacked-on epilogue-y things that broke up my reading flow. in conclusion, this is like "behind the scenes", but with a more experimental form that kind of breaks it.

Peter Boyle

My GR friends will know that I am a big Kate Atkinson fan. I sometimes feel that she doesn't get the critical acclaim she deserves - maybe it's because her books sell so well that she is often tagged as "Popular Fiction"? Anyway, Human Croquet is one that had passed me by until now. It doesn't seem to be talked about as much as her other novels, but I reckon it's up there with some of her best work.

16-year-old Isobel Fairfax is our narrator. She lives with her family in the run-down Fairfax Manor, located in Lythe, a village in the North of England. And quite a dysfunctional family it is. Her brother Charles is obsessed with alien abductions, while bad-tempered Aunt Vinny shares her bedroom with a herd of cats. Eliza, Isobel's mother went missing went she was a child, and her and Charles have never truly recovered from this. They search the house for mementoes of her, anything that can unlock precious memories. Her father Gordon has taken a second wife, but Isobel is not very keen on her. She still clings to a hope that her dear mother might someday return. But strangest of all, Isobel seems to have developed the ability to time travel - visions of past Lythe appear to her while see is out walking. What could it all mean?

I think the reason the story works so well is down to the voice of Isobel. She's an intelligent, witty girl, but self-critical and lonely. She has a huge crush on Malcolm, one of her school-friends, and you root for her to win him over. But I also enjoyed the mysteries of the plot - the riddle of Eliza is one thing, but the apparitions Isobel experiences left me scratching my head in wonder.

When the answer to this arrives, it seems so obvious, and I was kicking myself that I hadn't figured it out. Some reviews have complained that it is a hackneyed explanation, but for me, it worked. If I have one complaint about the book, it's that maybe there is too much going on. There are references to Shakespeare and Ovid (much of which went over my head) and the main story is bookended by some mythical echoes of the Fairfax family history. I didn't really care about these details and found myself skimming through them. But when Human Croquet focuses on Isobel, her profound longing for her mother and the tragic events surrounding her disappearance, that's when this story comes to life.


I'm a big fan of Kate Atkinson's witty prose and oddball characters, but I have to admit that this novel had a degree of weirdness beyond that found in those of her novels which I have read to date. In a mix of first person and third person narratives, it tells the story of Isobel Fairfax, a teenage girl from a most peculiar family, who finds herself unaccountably slipping through pockets of time. And that's the most easily understood part of the plot, because as time goes on, Isobel's life becomes even stranger and increasingly out of control.

It took a while for me to get into the novel, as I found myself initially as annoyed by Isobel's smart mouth and sulleness as I had been charmed by Ruby, the narrator in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. After a while, the narrative became more compelling - but almost unbearably sad - as the reasons for Isobel being the way she is became clearer. Well, sort of clearer, because in many ways what's true and what's not is never entirely resolved as the narrative skip between various realities (or possibly unrealities).

The novel is scattered with literary allusions - the Shakespearean ones being the most obvious to me - and Atkinson's writing is rich in clever wordplay. But ultimately it's one of those works which is exhausting rather than completely satisfying and I can't help but wonder if lots of it went over my head. Overall, this was not an easy book to read and I can't say that the experience was one of unalloyed pleasure. The characters have haunted me though, so that says something about the power of Atkinson's prose.

This isn't a book to read if you need a linear structure, an easily comprehensible plot or a really satisfactory resolution. On the other hand, if you think you come from a dysfunctional family then you haven't met Isobel's relatives and maybe you should make their acquaintance. Or maybe Isobel's family isn't so dysfunctional after all. At the end of the novel I wasn't entirely sure about that point.

This was something good to share with my friend Jemidar, even if we didn't really know what was going on a lot of the time. If someone with a less interesting style had written the novel, I'm not sure whether I would have finished it or how I would have rated it. As it is, Atkinson's writing is impressive, but I don't like this novel nearly as much as Behind the Scenes at the Museum or her Jackson Brodie series. It therefore comes in at 3-1/2 stars.


Human Croquet by one of my favorite British authors, Kate Atkinson, did not disappoint. Ms. Atkinson's writing is marked not only by beautiful and haunting prose but her sharp writing can only be described as audacious. Spending time with Kate Atkinson is always magical.

As the New York Times Review Notable Book of the Year reported, it is a part fairy tale, part mystery and part coming-of-age novel about Isobel Fairfax in the 1960's British suburb of Lythe, once the heart of an Elizabethan feudal estate and home to a young English tutor, William Shakespeare. As young Isobel becomes more and more taken in and fascinated by all of the history of the Fairfax estate, the people, and her family history, she sometimes becomes involved in Shakespearian time warps. This was one of Atkinson's earlier novels, but a wonderful addition to her literary accomplishments.

The play's the thing, but in this case a very bad thing and I shall draw a non-existent curtain over the Lythe Players' version of a 'Midsummer Night's Dream.' It is comic where it should be lyrical, tedious where it should be comic and there is not even the slightest speck of magic in it."

"I like it here, it's more restful than the present, wherever that is. I shall gather nuts and berries and make myself a nest in the hollow of a tree and become as nimble as a squirrel in my great sylvan home. Does this forest have an end, does it have distinct boundaries, where the trees stop, or does it go on forever, curling like a leafy shawl around the earth, making an infinity of the great globe?"

"If I look closely at the trunk of the tree, I can make out the famous faint initials of 'WS.' I embrace the Lady Oak like a lover, feel its bark, its age, its electricity. I close my eyes and kiss the faded initials What if it really was Shakespeare himself who carved his name here? What if we both had touched, embraced, admired, this same tree."

Tarin Towers

Have you ever read a comedy of manners that involves time travel? Or a Gothic novel that takes place in the 1960s? Or a coming-of-age story whose rites of passage include meeting Shakespeare, witnessing several murders, burning down a house, and turning into a tree?

Kate Atkinson once again blew me away with this book. I had just finished reading "Case Histories" (5 stars), an unforgettable non-traditional mystery and expertly woven tale of identity and attachment, when I found "Human Croquet" on top of a phone box in my neighborhood. This copy has been read by a young adult who circled all the words she didn't know (quite a few in this very British book).

I'm not giving this book 5 stars, but I would give it four-and-a-half if I could. There are a few spots where, even in a book of alternate universes, there are some consistency problems, and a few places where the writing gets bogged down in descriptions of either philosophy or trees. (Interesting place to get bogged down, can't see the forest for, etc.)

But the humanity, humor, depth, charaterization, and attention to detail, as well as the caliber of the writing itself, make this a book I would recommend to anyone, particularly someone seeking a strong, teenage female heroine.


Kate Atkinson certainly knows how to tell a story. The idea behind this book was, as always, highly original. Very cleverly told! The title is superbly chosen.


I love Kate Atkinson but don't feel this novel is one of her best. Her prose style is still wonderful but this one seemed to lack her usual humour. In places I found it overwhelmingly sad and in others I was totally confused. The ending wasn't as satisfying as it might have been and I felt more than a little let down. Maybe when I've mulled it over a bit more I may feel differently. Still good though, if not particularly enjoyable because of difficult subject matter.

Buddy read with Kim :-).

Julie Christine

Surreal but grounded, quirky but not frivolous, endearing and sad- this is a mystery of lost identity, lost souls, crimes of passion, time warps and warped minds. It's delicious, clever, unsettling, grim and guffaw-inducing. Atkinson is a category unto herself.


This book wants to be in a cage match with McEwan's Atonement, but, lacking confidence in itself, straps some badly explained timetravel to its breasts and tries to distract everyone.

Incest! Timetravel! Stolen babies! More incest! Family history! Teenage debauchery! Groundhog Day! Murder! All that....and more. Coming up next on What The Actual Fuck Channel.


I read this book more or less at one sitting.

I alternated between admiring this book - and getting quite cross with it. I thought it was a mess. But a brilliant one. On one level I admire the author's ambition. The book tries to be everything. It's a romance, a historical novel, a medidation on time and nature, a work of magic realism, a homage to Shakespearean comedy, and an inspired set of variations and improvisations.

In places the writing is wonderfully noir, and there are sections which are pure farce. (The best parts are where Kate Atkinson is noir and funny at the same time.) I especially loved the section in which Isabel, thesixteen year old heroine attends a party at which Malcolm the object of her affections is present. There are several different versions of this party, each one more horrific than its predecessor.

I didn't feel the book hung together, but I loved the author's fearlessness and ambition. It made me want to go back and reread 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' - and to tackle her more recent novels