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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruins-by-kate-atkinson

This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

a-monster-calls-by-patrick-ness

“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them lose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

I was expecting to weep bucket loads at this but managed to get almost to the end before shedding a tear. The very premise of the book is sad and painful though and when I did cry, I really cried. Conor is 12 and his mum has cancer. His life is one long struggle with school bullies, overly sympathetic teachers, a stressed grandmother and a regularly occurring nightmare. One night at 12.07 the yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes alive as a monster. It tells him three stories with unexpected endings and then demands that Conor reciprocates with the story of what happens in his nightmare.

The monster’s stories are designed to illustrate that we all have good and bad within us and that it’s our actions that count in the grander scheme of things, not what we think. They reveal the contradictions that make up most of us, the power of being honest with ourselves yet how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Simple fairy tales on one level, they go far beyond your standard moral fables, and Conor’s angry and physical responses to the monster’s words do nothing to detract from the sense that multiple and complex interpretations are possible, each one depending on our unique experiences, feelings from moment to moment and openness to different ideas or meanings. The layers of understanding and sensitivity woven through each page make this  a wonderful book for children and adults alike, whether dealing with loss, grief and guilt or not.

What I didn’t know until reading A MONSTER CALLS is that the idea originally came from another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could finish writing the story. By all accounts, Ness has done her great justice and I very much hope the film adaptation retains the simplicity and clarity that allows the book to make such a profound impact.

NB The Kindle version I read isn’t illustrated and I’d really recommend reading a hard copy.

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THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

the-forgetting-time-by-sharon-guskin

You Only Live Once. That’s what people said, as if life really mattered because it happened only one time. But what if it was the other way around? What if what you did mattered MORE because life happened again and again, consequences unfolding across centuries and continents? What if you had chances upon chances to love the people you loved, to fix what you screwed up, to get it right?

Jerome Anderson has spent his life researching the possibility that consciousness can survive death. He’s travelled the world documenting incredible cases of children who remember previous lives in huge detail, ache for contact with their previous families and, in some instances, bear birthmarks that are haunting clues to the manner of their previous deaths. Now, diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and the prospect of rapidly losing access to much of his language and vocabulary, Anderson is racing against time to publish his findings and include one more compelling case that will appeal to US audiences.

Janie Zimmerman is Mommie-Mom to 4 year old Noah, conceived during a one night stand on a holiday in Trinidad, and struggling with a son who refuses to be bathed, has horrific nightmares about being pushed under water and incessantly pleads to be taken home. When Noah’s teachers involve protective services out of growing concern over his behaviour and vivid stories, Janie takes to Google in desperation, stumbling upon a link to Anderson’s work. With Noah increasingly distressed, a stream of psychiatrists bleeding her financially and emotionally dry, and her successful career as an architect stalling in the face of crisis after domestic crisis with her son, Janie reaches out to Anderson.

Denise Crawford is just about holding down a job at an old people’s home. Her teenage son, Charlie, is fed but that’s about it, and her musician husband Henry spends his time on the road away from home, trying to escape the memories of  their other son, Tommy, who disappeared at the age of nine and whose body has never been found. Seven years on and Denise still puts up flyers with Tommy’s face on them, urging people to get in touch if they have seen him, hoping beyond hope that theirs will be one of the miracles she’s read about in the papers and Tommy will be returned to them.

THE FORGETTING TIME brings these narratives together in what’s a moving, though somewhat predictable, story.  Guskin captures Anderson’s plight particularly successfully, but all the characters are convincing and touched me hugely. The moments when Denise meets Janie, and Noah meets Charlie are charged with enormous amounts of tension and Guskin rises to the occasion without resorting to cliches or platitudes. Janie’s reflection that the man made constellations she’s replicated on Noah’s ceiling is “the most all of us could handle of the universe” implies Guskin is a true believer in the phenomenon her story explores, but there’s a healthy dose of scepticism throughout and what emerges in the very satisfying Epilogue (for which full marks to the author) is more a sense of how valuable clinging to explanations can be, as we seek comfort in our lives and deaths.

Part mystery, part Jodie Picoultesque women’s fiction and part something undefinable, THE FORGETTING TIME is definitely unforgettable.

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HINTERLAND by Caroline Brothers

hinterland-by-caroline-brothers

This is a genuinely difficult book to read – not because of the way it’s written but because, although fictional, it’s like reading non fiction. The things happening to two young boys crossing Europe as refugees from Afghanistan are all too real and desperate. The very fact they are having to flee their home and travel alone, choose between going hungry or stealing, spend time in the Jungle camp at Calais and stow away in a refrigerated lorry to reach the small circle of light that is England – it’s all happening to other children and every page is a painful reminder that what is one person’s entertainment is another’s everyday existence.

Kabir and Aryan’s story has a gentle simplicity to it, woven through with moments of heart wrenching, gut punching clarity. Aryan’s map has a symbol for migratory birds along the border between Turkey and Greece – ‘Sanctuary’ he reads. That’s all. No labouring of the point -just the idea left hanging that we protect birds more than we protect children.  One evening, huddling around a fire, Kabir watches a teenager heat a piece of wire in the flames then, calmly, clasp it tight in his fingers and pull it through. “A polished line runs across skin turned yellow with scar tissue.” The boy is getting rid of his finger prints, so he cannot be turned back if he’s caught by border guards. A statement of fact and then the story moves on.

As in THE MEMORY STONES, Brothers writing can be poetic at times, especially when she’s describing the natural world. For example: “A caterpillar pleats and stretches itself along the length of a branch like a tape measure with audacious stripes.” She also has the ability to capture so much in just a few words, such as when an exhausted beyond caring Aryan  “looks up at the stars that are fading in the watery dawn and thinks of the stars where he was born, passive overseers of so much strife, and wonders how long they will have to bear this limbo, suspended between a past they can no longer return to, and a future that’s taking for ever to unfurl.” In just that one line she conveys everything from how small and powerless we ultimately are to the enormous difference we can make with our decisions; from the universal human capacity to hope for something better to our equally large capacity to live according to our differences; and from the way a few months can last a life time and decades can pass in the blink of an eye.

The brothers are typical boys in many ways and yet different in so many others. They hold a litany of cities in their heads so they don’t get lost and to chant at moments of anxiety like a talisman: KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. They ponder big questions like where they are from – and whether identity is tied up with your birthplace, your history, your culture or something else. They roll in the dirt with puppies, recognising and responding to the desire for affection and playfulness. They are haunted by the memories of their family, distressed to no longer be able to remember how their mother smelt, only that her scent was the same as that carried on her clothes. They form strong bonds with their fellow refugees, especially Hamid, who yearns to study astronomy, attracted by the starlight’s journey starting long before the conflict that has ravaged his country  “if we could imagine ourselves in space, we would be high off the ground, away from all our troubles, and we could see all of life beneath us. It would make all the fighting seem small and unimportant and pointless, and maybe it would make people like peace more”. They cry, love hamburgers, argue, love new trainers, squirm when having their hair cut, love one another. Children, old beyond their years and experiencing things nobody should ever have to go through.

As 2016 comes to a close, what the book had to say about hope really struck a chord with me – this year it’s been a real struggle to stay hopeful. So when Aryan realises that getting into the tunnel under the Channel is likely impossible and acknowledges to himself just how powerfully he’d been holding onto to that prospect as “a last ditch reservoir of hope”, I sobbed my heart out. I sobbed too at the kindness of strangers, the way fellow refugees eyes light up when they see Kabir and are reminded of the sons, cousins, brothers and nephews they have left behind or lost. And I sobbed at the inevitable conclusion to their odyssey in a world where there’s no such thing as a happy ending if you are born the “wrong” side of a border.

HINTERLAND may well be a difficult book to read but such things are relative, and perhaps this story about Aryan and Kabir may prompt some readers into doing whatever they can, however small, to bring a little bit of hope back into the world:

http://www.hummingbirdproject.org.uk/

http://care4calais.org/

http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/

http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/

 

 

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GUERNICA by Dave Boling

guernica-by-dave-boling

I didn’t know very much about what happened to Guernica before reading this book but it was a good excuse to find out more and very timely too, given several politicians and commentators have drawn parallels with what’s currently happening in Aleppo. The author’s end note also puts the events into an ongoing context: “Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, by the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.”

He also notes that he deliberately chose to focus his novel less on the political background and more on the “poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.” He does so very effectively, despite the first half of the book being relentlessly positive and upbeat. As we meet the key characters and watch their lives unfold, I kept expecting things to go wrong; people to be stood up at the altar, miscarriages, betrayal or accidents. But these are people enjoying the simple things of life, happy with what they have and fully aware of being blessed. That doesn’t mean things are always easy, but they respond to problems with love, openness and a profound trust that things will work themselves out. They share, they talk and they dance.

At the centre of the story is Justo, his brothers Josepe and Xabier, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter, Miren, her best friend, the blind and orphaned Alaia, and two brothers, Dodo and Miguel. Miren has inherited her mother’s good nature and knack of being adored, “for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended…She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.” She can dance on the rim of a wine glass, strides so her black plait swings like a pendulum, and rather than inducing envy, reminds people how life looked before it became complicated. Justo is a giant of a man, literally and metaphorically. His physical strength is matched by an inner sense of purpose that’s deployed protecting those whom he loves. When he tells his daughter’s fiancee about a ritual that involves biting off ram’s testicles, we cannot be sure if it’s fact or fiction, but that doesn’t really matter; it has the desired effect. Mariangeles keeps him in check most of the time and has a clarity of vision and sense of objectivity that makes her the ideal mouthpiece for the many of the historical and political facts Boling weaves into his pastoral idyll. The firebrand Dodo also bring this perspective but is more revolutionary than cool observer, perfectly conveying the Basque passion that throbs through the novel.

As I turned each page having my expectations of disaster confounded each time, there was, nonetheless, a sense of impending doom, after all a novel with such a title is not going to avoid tragedy. This sense was heightened by occasional vignettes starring historical figures such as Picasso, Luftwaffe pilot Von Richthofen and Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, and the effect is to underline the separation between the everyday lives being lived out in Guernica and the storm clouds gathering just out of sight. Miren sums it up when she  admits “these things happened but not to her, not here” and goes on “she felt that if she could just talk to Franco, sit down with him, she could straighten this all out, She could make him see the importance of stopping the war.” It’s a thought I have most days about men like Assad.

All of which makes the shock when it does arrive all the more profound. Not a book to read in public, if you can help it.

Boyling spans decades in the first half of the book, then we get a section that’s just one day: 26 April 1937. Things slow down as they are wont to do in moments of horror and pain. Every graphic detail is recollected, from the sounds to the smells, to the sensation of being lost in the town you’ve known since birth because it’s unrecognisable. A door cannot be shut because “the lower part of a man’s leg, still wearing a black espadrille” blocks it. People rammed into a shelter lick the walls “trying to suck in condensation to fend off the steaming heat”. The wheels of a pram kick up cockerels’ tails of dark fluid.

Then comes the aftermath. Von Richthofen reflects on the bombing and judges it “a genesis moment” and “Effective. Modern. The new war.” Xabier is asked how many people died and replies “When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mess, you don’t take an inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”The undead seeking family members, the grieving, the anger and the revenge. Whether that’s taking the lives of those responsible, saving lives, or just stubbornly continuing to live your own.  The children shipped to England for “rest, contentment and – more important still – peace”. Welcomed with open arms and nobody demanding dental checks to verify their age. And the painting, seen and admired around the world, and about which Picasso remarks, when asked by a German soldier “You did this, didn’t you”, “No. You did”. The steady, difficult tasks of rebuilding your home and your life, when everything has changed so dramatically and everywhere is haunted by those you have lost.

A sensual book of every day miracles, GUERNICA is far from perfect – it’s naive at times, suffers from a lack of political analysis and too many easy cliches – but there’s something about it that touched me deeply. Perhaps because, more than anything, it’s a reminder of what living a good life means; that love endures; that sometimes happiness is all the more sweet for the despair that precedes it. A reminder that “if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn towards something that will keep you moving forward”. And that, despite the weight of history, we still have much to learn as a human race about how to avoid the horrors of war.

 

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HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD by JK Rowling

harry potter and the cursed child

What to say, other than this is just what you might expect from Rowling and the wizarding world. Harry is married with 3 children and working at the Ministry of Magic, headed up by Hermione, also married – to Ron. Both couples’ children go to Hogwarts (of course!), where Professor McGonagall is  the Head Teacher. Lots has changed but plenty hasn’t and anyone who loved the Harry Potter series of books won’t be disappointed by this new adventure. Written as 2 plays designed to be seen back to back, it tells what happens when Harry’s misunderstood youngest son, Albus, and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, decide to go back in time to rescue Cedric Diggory, the “spare” Voldemort slayed when both he and Harry won the Triwizard Tournament in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. A time turner, polyjuice potion and the Hogwarts Express all play their part, and although the play format means some aspects of this story feel a little too sudden, it’s faithful to all we know so far and the wonderful world Rowling created. Not as dark as the later books but  definitely one to read and relish – and if you are lucky enough, to watch on stage

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THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

the memory stones by caroline brothers

The last book of my idyllic summer holidays and one which I was only half way through before travelling back to England – a transition made all the more difficult by the latter half of the novel being set in part on a Greek island and evoking all that’s so beautiful about this part of the world. A place sorely missed now I am back in a London of which Brothers writes, people “seem to be permanently on the run” and where the pubs are “upholstered like old hookers in tat and ash pocked velvet”. The various locations she summons so effectively are merely backdrops though, for a deeply moving, painful and exquisitely written story about Argentina’s disappeared – and in particular one family, whose pregnant daughter, Graciela, is taken by the authorities one night, and whose lives thereafter are defined by that one event, that condemns them to an existence “in the half light of absence”.

Brother’s writing in the opening few pages is lyrical and laden with warnings, so much so that I found it a little inaccessible and nearly gave up. It’s worth the effort though and once the main story kicks in, this is a compelling read, in which the occasional passage of gorgeous poetry like prose add to the weight of history and power with which the book as a whole is infused.

There’s a strong plot, about which I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s the way that Brothers has captured the agony of waiting, of not knowing, that makes the book really stand out. At it’s heart are school teacher, Yolanda, and surgeon and occasional cartoonist, Osvaldo, who desperately search for any scrap of news about Graciela’s fate. The silence with which their quest is met is, as Yolanda reflects at one point, in relation to Jose, her daughter’s boyfriend, like being “plunged into a well so deep that it had swallowed even the echo of his fall”. She spends a lot of time in what she calls “a breadline for information”, alongside others also “queuing for a small ration of hope”. Both she and her husband long for nothing more than “ordinary life in all its insignificance” – the chance to be a normal family, where normal things happen instead of the most terrible and unbearable of losses; that of your child.

They do bear, it of course, but the emotional and physical price they pay is enormous. Brothers doesn’t shirk from the truth, and in particular we see how the parents’ relationship with their other child is damaged by the search for Graciela. In other characters we have an insight into the guilt of having survived or escaped, and the constant search to try to understand the randomness of it all. She gives us too the complexities of the positions each parent adopts during the novel. The pain and comfort of choosing to believe in disappearance rather than death. The twisted nature of hoping one’s child is in captivity enduring who knows what kind of torment and abuse, rather than in an unmarked grave. As Osvaldo writes “As long as there was doubt I could hold onto her; I could breathe life into the flame of her and keep that flickering alive.” It’s Yolanda’s actions though, in their simplicity, that really drove me to tears – each year she knits two garments for the grandchild she doesn’t even know exists. This passage from Osvaldo made the tears flow even more freely, in a book that I recommend reading in private unless you don’t mind openly weeping on the tube:

“So this is how it happens, how people disappear. It is a transformation in those who are left to wait and wonder, a clouding of the mind so gradual you do no notice until its surface has turned opaque. There is no shock, no sudden realisation. Instead, it happens like this, on a Tuesday afternoon in an empty apartment, with a pile of fading photographs and the rain. Graciela is alive in my memory, but my memory is starting to fade.”

One of Brothers’ characters, Ana, is interested in archaeology and through this, she explores “a fundamental fact about being human”: the need to commemorate past generations in some form and  “this need we have to lay the dead to rest.” What happened under the Argentinian Junta is relatively recent history but, the novelist reminds us, it’s part of a whole human history of suffering, of death and of remembering. Certainly THE MEMORY STONES  doesn’t avoid the torture and brutality of the Argentinian army, “the stupefying Pentothal injections; the night flights over the river that runs to the sea”. But this isn’t a book that is concerned with directly confronting the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians. Rather, it’s about the war waged indirectly on a whole population subjected to the torture of not knowing whether your loved ones have survived or what they have endured. It’s about the terrible cruelty of the imagination and  “how language fails us. How there is word like ‘widow’ or ‘orphan’ for the parent who loses a child.” And it’s about the extent to which we become what happens to us, and are ourselves whoever we turn out to be.

It’s difficult to do justice to THE MEMORY STONES without spoiling it for other readers, but this was easily the best book of my 10 days escape to the sunshine, and probably one of the most memorable I have read this year so far.

 

 

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