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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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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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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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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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THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE by Marybeth Mayhew

the things we wish were true by marybeth mayhew

A young boy has an accident at a swimming pool and is whisked away by ambulance, leaving his sister in the care of Zell, lonely since her own children left home. Her neighbour Lance, pulled the child from the water and is the hero of the hour, attracting the attention of Jencey, former prom queen and hanging out at the pool to try to forget the events that have forced her back to the town where she grew up. Her childhood sweetheart, Everett, married her best friend, Bryte, and the two have a son, Christopher, just one of the many children playing in the water that day.

Thrown together by events at the pool, each of these characters have a life changing summer ahead of them that brings new meaning to the idea of family and friendship.

Harmless, untaxing, drivel.

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THE BRAVE by Nicholas Evans

the brave by nicholas evans

Not long ago I was gripped by the opening episode of a BBC drama called Undercover, and in particular a scene which took place on death row. THE BRAVE starts in a very similar way and, equally, got under my skin. The unfolding plots are ostensibly very different yet share some interesting parallels in the questions they ask about cruelty, the value of life and  the impact of lies on both the deceived and the one doing the misleading.

In common with Evans other novels, THE BRAVE is packed full of high drama balanced with, in my view, much more successful, moments of quiet, during which the complex moral subjects he’s grappling with can more easily be heard. Here the plot revolves around a writer, Tom Bedford, whose estrnaged son, Danny, is facing a military court for his role in the killing of civilians during the Iraq war. Told via a narrative that moves between past and present, we learn that Tom has had a traumatic childhood involving physical bullying, shocking revelations about his parents, domestic violence and the death of his mother. It’s perhaps little wonder that the relationships he’s forged as an adult have been difficult, a problem compounded by shame about his past and a refusal to disclose important facts about it. But a deep yearning to give support to Danny makes Tom confront both the truth and the guilt that’s been destroying him.

Evans is at pains to show us how the past shapes the future. As a child, Tom, looked to the larger than life fictional cowboys that graced his TV set for a way of escaping reality. But the glamour and excitement of moving to Hollywood and meeting  the actor who plays one of his childhood heroes is shortlived compared to the long lasting impact of being taught how to ride, and about the majesty of nature, by an “Indian”. As an adult, Tom is an expert on the Native American Blackfleet tribe and lives an isolated life in the West. It can feel contrived at times – and the Hollywood setting that’s the backdrop for Tom’s adolescence only serves to underscore Evan’s obvious eye half being on the movie of his book. But a fast moving plot, some good characterisation and the knotty ethical questions it poses, prove fairly forgiving and THE BRAVE is a highly successful page turner.

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STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

station eleven by emily st john mandel

STATION ELEVEN opens with a performance of King Lear and is rich with reminders that, whilst we may live in a more technologically advanced world, humankind has not changed much since 1616, nor does it look set to change much in the future. In this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are still programmed to survive, to strive and to build connections with others.

Playing King Lear is Arthur Leander and his story holds together the various plot lines that make up STATION ELEVEN. Set partly in a present on the verge of being destroyed by a deadly flu virus, and partly in a post Apocalyptic future, it is unexpectedly gentle, beautiful and uplifting. Kirsten, a young girl on stage with Leander, survives the epidemic and joins with a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, who traverse a sparsely populated landscape performing for the inhabitants of far flung pockets of new settlements. She carries with her a sci-fi comic containing exquisite drawings of a new planet that’s hiding in a black hole in space. The planet is called Station Eleven and the artist is Miranda, Leander’s ex-wife, who succumbs to the flu lying on a beach watching the sunset blaze and reflecting on her assumptions about what the world would always be like. The only other copy of her comic ever made also survives the apocalypse in tact, given by Leander to his son and left by the boy in an airport terminal where one survivor has set up a museum of relics from the pre-collapse world. The drawings immortalise Leander, fulfilling his desire as an actor not just to be seen but to be remembered albeit not in the way he imagined when comparing himself to the old movie stars whose films are watched over and over

Memory is a theme that Mandel comes back to time and again throughout the novel. It’s the lens through which survival is viewed and elevates STATION ELEVEN  above your typical book about societal collapse. It references all we know – or think we know – about what happens in these situations: one character stockpiles bottled water and food, admitting he’s seen enough disaster movies to know how the script plays out. And there’s the obligatory lawlessness, feral gangs and the horror of clogged up highways and bodies rotting behind every closed door. Many survivors bear tattoos of arrows on their bodies to mark the number of people they have killed. But by setting the sections that concern the future in Year Twenty, where cars have been reduced to rusted exoskeletons on flat tires, Mandel can concentrate far more on the process of rebuilding and remembering. In STATION ELEVEN hell is no longer other people, it’s  the absence of the people you long for. It explores the notion that memories can be both a blessing and a burden –  on whether those who were too little to remember life before have it easier or worse –  and reflects on what longing for the past does to our ability to build a future.

Purpose, and the role it plays in what we know as civilisation, is also a key theme – both as in human endeavour and as in the sort that often manifests itself in religion. So there are some who believe they have been spared death from the flu because they are the chosen ones – they form a cult, led my a ranting, raving Lear tribute act,  that lives by a set of rules that are just about as far distant from the notion of civilisation as it’s possible to be. In contrast, collective purpose and responsibility create the conditions in which art and beauty can be appreciated once again – a new culture emerges, forged from what was best about the old world and important in the new. A culture that rejects the frivolity and dream like unreality of sending rockets into space and pressing a button to talk to someone hundreds of thousands of miles away, opting instead, at least in the short term, to value the more immediate satisfactions of being fed, loved and able to think about a future with possibilities.

With just the right balance between profundity and the every day, between drama and reflection, and between the stories of individual characters and the wider implications of their behaviour, Mandel has written a thought provoking and unforgettable novel. One that forces us to consider what really matters – are we really so busy that there’s no time to write the full version of thx? – and to confront the human condition head on, in all it’s glorious complexity, as something worth inhabiting with every fibre of our being. Scrawled on one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans are the words survival is insufficient. When (not if) society as we know it collapses, I hope someone remembers that and, if I am still around, I hereby declare my intention to set up a band of players that creates something beautiful and moving that will help banish the dark.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for helping and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons, whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading an commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

 

 

 

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