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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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THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

the-girls-by-emma-cline

sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water

Evie is haunted by her past. A past in which she spent one summer at a free love commune, in thrall to the dangerously charismatic and delusional Russell Hadrick and, perhaps even more so, to the girls that hung around him. The summer ended in mass murder.

Unhappy and bored as she waits out the weeks before being dispatched to boarding school, Evie lives with her mother, cringing at the recent divorcee’s efforts to find herself, a new boyfriend, and her inner thinner more beautiful being. Best friend Connie and even her older brother are an increasingly ineffective distraction, so when Evie encounters the long haired, sullen, provocative Suzanne, stealing toilet roll from the store, she is immediately smitten by the prospect of breaking out of her dull existence.

Suzanne invites Evie to the ranch that’s home to Russell and hangers on, and it’s not long before she has her first sexual encounter with him. But it’s her encounters with the girls that really change and shape Evie and Cline has captured perfectly that time in a teenager’s life when girlfriends are your entire world and everything is viewed through the prism of how they might react. She’s also nailed the underlying cultural norms that contribute to such behaviour, along with the vulnerability, desperation and poor self esteem that makes some young girls so at risk of exploitation and abuse.

At one point Evie reflects: “I waited to be told what was good about me” and “all that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Being noticed is a recurring theme for Evie, unable to hide her longing to be someone else. As an adult, she is hugely sensitive to the young girls she finds campaigning for their own existence, “before finally giving up”. And as a teenager, the only time she seems to notice the absence of absence inside her is when she takes drugs or fills up with hatred for her mother: “it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense”.

No wonder she’s so drawn to Suzanne, the first person to really look at Evie. Whose “face answered all its own questions” and who seems the very opposite of the resignation, being overlooked and being backed into someone else’s corner that Evie assumes is her fate.  Suzanne represents a turning point, with life before “limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits” and life afterwards “come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world.” The other girls on the ranch are similarly drawn to Suzanne’s combination of worldliness, affection and challenge. She is a skilled prophet too, proselytizing on Russell’s behalf, delivering his judgments and girls.  When Russell incites murder, it’s Suzanne who makes it all happen, who eggs them on, and it’s Suzanne who, whether deliberately or not, ensures Evie isn’t implicated.

It’s almost impossible to read this book apart from the knowledge of the events that inspired it – the Charles Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate and her family. One of the Manson cult’s trademarks was to break into empty houses and disturb them a little, to mess with the occupants’ heads. The girls do the same. But Cline’s sympathy for the fictional girls, who are portrayed  as victims as much as killers, is strongly evident and is what ultimately stops this being a simple retelling of the Manson story. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand how such things can happen – even a warn that they are perhaps not so unlikely once you understand the way girls are made to feel, and the way men feel they are made to behave.

Evie says of her teenage self, “At that age I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.” What’s striking about the sections of the book set in the present is that she seems to still be inhabiting that space – as well as projecting it onto others. This is never clearer than in the closing scene, when she’s running on the beach and expects to be confronted, if not attacked, by a man coming towards her. A man who, headphones plugged in and  lost in a world of his own, has in fact not even noticed her. It’s an ending that I found immensely frustrating at the time but seems very fitting now, with some distance. After all, being noticed only matters if you define yourself in relation to others. Or, as Cline puts it, “even at the end, the girls had always been stronger than Russell”.

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THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

the-power-by-naomi-alderman

I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

the-essex-serpent-by-sarah-perry

“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”

 

 

 

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NW by Zadie Smith

nw by zadie smith

NW is North West London and, in common with many books set in the capital, I found myself far more impressed  by Smith’s depiction of the clamour, edginess and sheer relentlessness of  Willesden and its surrounds than by the characters and plot.

The novel opens with scene in which Leah, one of two women around whom NW revolves, is scammed by one of her neighbours, Shar, who claims to need money to take a taxi to the hospital. It’s a striking, lively, beginning  and the streets come alive in Smith’s assured hands. Every sense is assaulted and all this whilst also introducing many of the threads of Leah’s life that will be picked up later in the book.

These include her childhood best friend, Natalie, another of the planets that make up the NW universe, but this is more soap opera than a story with dominant protagonists or a plot with a beginning middle and end.  Both women have made success of their lives, though Natalie more so in Leah’s eyes, and NW sparkles with insight into the rivalry that exists between them, thrums with the discomfort and disparity between their middle class presents and working class pasts. Thrown into the mix is race, including white Leah’s black boyfriend, and all at once you have the ever present potential for discordance as well as harmony that marks out London and the lives of those within in it.

It’s a slightly non conventional novel, with some sections that use stream of consciousness for example, but by far and away the most enjoyable is the slightly out on a limb story of Felix Cooper, a reformed drug addict, who goes West to check out a sports car, gets asked if he has any dope to sell, then diverts to see an old lover, Annie. There’s a warmth and slowing down that makes his story accessible in a way much of NW isn’t – like stepping away from the polluted traffic jams of London’s main thoroughfares and seeking a bit of calm on a side street or a park.

Felix was at the same school as Natalie and Leah, his life starts and ends on the streets they think of as home, but other than that, there’s very little connection between their stories. It’s not an unusual literary device and underscores the jarring sense of disconnection NW awoke in me, but I am not sure that’s deliberate – it feels more like something that just didn’t work that well.

Bits of the novel are incredibly good – there’s a scene set on the Jubilee line that is almost perfect in the nuance, the glances and the unspoken rules of the underground. A dinner party at Natalie’s house is rich with observations about our class ridden society. The diversity, history, culture clashes and ebb and flow that make London such an interesting place are deeply ingrained in the fibre of Smith’s storytelling.  But the story itself just isn’t big enough for its back drop and as a whole NW a bit too much like many people’s experience of the capital – messy, unfriendly and alien.

 

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WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS and STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson

started early, took my dog by kate atkinson when will there be good news by kate atkinson

More from the incomparable Atkinson and the next two in the Jackson Brodie series.

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS sees Brodie involved in a horrific train crash, his identity stolen by a released prisoner, a kidnap, arson, some greek and latin text books used to hide drugs, and several wrong turns. Jam packed with accident, fluke and surprises galore, it is the living embodiment of a line much favoured by Brodie: A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen. It is also another of Atkinson’s tributes to the interconnectedness of people’s lives, especially their pasts, presents and futures.

As with the other Brodie books, women and girls being murdered is a key preoccupation, and here, as well as our detective’s familiar take on things, we are treated to the perspectives of a female police officer, Louise, (She had always preferred North and South to Wuthering Heights. All that demented running around the moors, identifying yourself with the scenery, not a good role model for a woman), and Joanna Hunter who, as a child, was the sole survivor of a vicious attack on her mother and siblings. But this is not your typical crime novel. The darkness isn’t allowed to completely descend and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS is as much a celebration of the good that people do for one another, as a catalogue of harms. One character in particular lifts the book into the light – a smart, feisty 16 year old by the name of Reggie, who administers mouth to mouth resuscitation on Brodie when he’s thrown from the train wreckage, outfoxes the comedy criminals in pursuit of her scurrilous brother, and is a terrier when it comes to the people she loves.

Louise is also a triumph. Angry, awkward and utterly appealing, she crashes her way through the book, cursing under her breath and furious with pretty much everyone, especially Brodie and her husband (She had made a terrible mistake, hadn’t she? She had married the wrong man. No, no, she had married the right man, it was just that she was the wrong woman).

It’s Louise and Reggie’s dogged persistence that help bring the novel’s main crimes to light and then to resolution. Brodie’s plays a central but ultimately supporting role but it’s the women in WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS who deserve a medal. So too does Atkinson for having penned yet another masterpiece. One of the many brilliant things about it was that I kept thinking it was over then turning the page to find across extra little tying up of ends – when the end does come it’s hugely satisfying and complete as a result. Other writers really should take note!

In STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, Brodie is trying to track down the birth parents of a woman named Hope McMaster, who is living in New Zealand, pregnant and prone to sending him over enthusiastic emails at all times of day and night. As he drives the length and breadth of the country following up various leads, Brodie’s also scouting out potential houses, somewhere to settle down and call home.

Meanwhile, in Leeds, Tracy, a former police officer turned shopping mall security guard, ends up in possession of a small child called Courtney, triggering memories of one of the first cases she worked on – the murder of a prostitute and the toddler left behind locked in her flat with the corpse for 3 weeks. As Tracy grapples with her conscience she must take ever more extreme steps to avoid falling into Brodie’s clutches and the hands of two leather clad thugs who are also apparently pursing her.

Starring a rescued dog, several bent coppers, an aged actress struggling with  the onset of dementia, another private detective called Jackson, and the ever present voice of Brodie’s ex girl friend, Julia, this is yet more quality writing, wit and clever plotting from Atkinson. Who else would give us lines like these: If Britain had been run by Betty’s [tea room on Harrogate] it would never have succumbed to economic Armageddon….All those tiny ancient marine life forms falling to the ocean floor to come back to life one day as a Disney Fairies Tea Set….Tracy had never picked anything in her life apart from scabs and daisies, and the latter was more of an assumption than an actual memory…..She felt as if she’d accidentally wandered into the middle of a Werther’s Original advert….He didn’t want to be responsible for Hope McMaster going into premature labour brought on my exclamation marks.

Can’t wait for the next in the series.

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THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling

the casual vacancy by jk rowling

I am sure I cannot be the only one to have spent the first few chapters of this book expecting Dementors, a flying motorbike or a Hippogriff to come hurtling round the corner but once I got over that I really enjoyed Rowling’s spot on portrayal of life in the fictional West Country town of Pagford. It opens with the demise of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, whose championing of a closer relationship with the local council estate called the Fields where has was born, has won him both friends and enemies amongst the local great and good. As supporters and opponents line up to fill Barry’s shoes on the council and determine the future of Pagford, Rowling takes us behind the town’s front doors to reveal all kinds of scheming, secrets and skulduggery.

We know she can tell stories and THE CASUAL VACANCY is no less good in this respect than the Harry Potter books. But what’s thrown into the mix here – and is a pleasant surprise – is Rowling’s acute  eye for parody, her insight into people’s vices and a healthy dose of honesty. Very few of the residents of Pagford escape her satirical observation. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of over fed and sanctimonious local butcher, Howard Mollison, who is leader of the parish council and relentless in his sucking up to those richer and more powerful than him. Howard’s daughter in law, Samantha, obsessed with the sculpted abs of a singer in a boy band, is also a triumph. But it’s the characters on the estate that elicited most of my sympathy, especially Krystal Wheedon, who is battling to keep her much younger brother Robbie being taken away by social services from their drug addict mother, Terri. The petty troubles of the Mollison’s, for example, pale into insignificance beside the tragedies that befall the Wheedons but, whilst Rowling’s politics shines through, she doesn’t fall into any obvious traps – this is a multi dimensional book full of complex, real personalities that simultaneously reflect the best and worst of human nature.

Interestingly, it’s the teenagers that give the plot its momentum, hacking in to the council website and posing as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother to wield some rare power over the adults of Pagford. This works practically in that the older generations are perhaps less likely to have the appropriate IT skills, but it also suggests that Rowling is still fascinated by what goes on in young people’s heads.  This very definitely isn’t a book written for children though. Funny in parts, this is essentially a very dark book – drug taking, self harming, domestic abuse, rape, and suicide all happens behind Pagford’s closed doors. Rowling seems fascinated by the shortsightedness and hypocrisy of the town’s residents, returning time and again to the crushing impact of poverty and inequality, to the damaging decisions of people unable – or unwilling – to open their minds to difference and disadvantage. In doing so, and whilst exploring the modern tendency to judge others from positions of relative anonymity, Rowling has herself very publicly, passed judgement on the snobbery and smugness that infects Pagford. Thank goodness, frankly, because it’s this which elevates THE CASUAL VACANCY from something that might otherwise have been little more than an updated Joanna Trollope novel.

In the interviews which accompanied the publication of her first book for adults, Rowling was suitable sanguine about its likely reception –  “The worst that can happen is everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” It isn’t. It’s not shockingly good either. She’s not suddenly developed overnight into a poet or a modern day George Eliot. But this book does give us what we might reasonably expect of a Rowling novel – a good read, a smart plot and characters we can root for. And that is plenty to recommend it, in my book.

 

 

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