This is all very meta. It's a story within a story, with at least one other story within that (the last of which is not very relevant). And the two main ones are more intertwined, rather than one enclosing the other, with typefaces used to distinguish them.
The largest story is that of a young woman during her time at Dundee University – in fact really just a few days in one term thereat. She’s a bit of a drip, just drifting along letting stuff happen to her – including repeatedly getting into a car with an unknown strange man who claims to be a private detective.
But the same time she (and I can’t remember her name, which can be a problem with first-person characters, because how often do you use your own name?) is holding an extended conversation with her mother (who, we’re repeatedly told, is not her mother) on a remote Scottish island whereon they are the only residents. She is trying to get her mother to tell her story. The mother is not keen to do so.
The slice-of-student-life in seventies Dundee is interesting enough. I’ve never been to Dundee, but I was a student in Edinburgh in the eighties, and it doesn’t sound all that different. Indeed, that story could be enough to carry a novel, if you had a slightly more active protagonist, and more of a plot.
The plot, such as it is, is in the island story. Well, the mystery is mainly told there, let’s say.
I enjoyed it all well enough while I was reading it, but can’t help but wonder what it’s really for. That’s not something I would normally ask of a novel – they are their own justification, generally; they exist to tell their story, and that’s all you need. But here, well… there isn’t quite enough of a story. It describes itself – within the island story, of the Dundee story; that’s part of the metaness – as a “comic novel”. And yes, there’s humour in the university story, and maybe beyond. But it ’s not exactly funny, you know?
And the last section is a detective story that the protagonist of the Dundee story is writing. But it doesn’t really relate to either of the other stories – except maybe by some imagery – and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I don’t really see why it’s there.
When I read Atkinson’s debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I likened it to The Crow Road. Sadly, this doesn’t live up to that promise. Luckily she went on to write Life After Life, which as you’ll recall, I loved.