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I have to be slightly careful what I write here, because I know Nevil Shute has an incredibly protective following. I can sort of understand why. He has an interesting background, an engineer turned novelist, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 and wrote many of his popular books about his new home. He wrote lots of books in the latter part of his life and several have been adapted into films. I’ve read two of his books this year, both re-reads. Both slightly disappointing if I’m honest, hopefully I’ll be able to explain why they were a bit of a let down.
I wasn’t even a teenager when Tenko was on the TV. I was absolutely captivated by this story of women in a prison camp in Malaysia during the second world war. They were women who had never needed to worry about their own safety and security before the war and now they grouped together for their own survival. While I was a student I spent a summer travelling in Malaysia and began to appreciate the environment these women had to live in.
A Town Like Alice tells a similar story. Jean Paget in living in Malaysia when World War Two breaks out. When the Japanese invade Singapore and Malaysia a group of women including Jean and a gaggle of children are separated from other prisoners and made to march across the peninsular in search of a camp to take them. It is a relentless, hot walk with many falling foul to illness and fatigue. They never do find a camp, but during their search Jean makes friends with an Australian POW, Joe Harman, who drives trucks for the Japanese and steals chickens for the women and children. This has dire consequences. After the war Jean comes into an inheritance and returns to Malaysia to help the villagers who sheltered the women. She finds out Joe’s fate was different to what she assumed and goes to Alice Springs to experience the town he told her about during the war. The film adaptation starring Virginia Mckenna and Peter Finch ends at this point. Perfect. It tells a story of a man and women who find each other in a time of turmoil.
The problem is, the book doesn’t end there. It goes on and on telling Jean’s story in Australia as she uses her inheritance to bring life to a backwater town in an attempt to make it into another Alice Springs. The only part of this section that interested me was the vastness of the outback cattle farms and how such a thing is managed.
On the Beach has an interesting theme and one which occupied the thoughts of many during the 50s and beyond. Before the book starts, the world has suffered a nuclear war. Australia took no part in it, but radiation is slowly drifting south. Australians know they have about six months until the deadly air reaches them. The population elsewhere on the planet has been wiped out. An American nuclear submarine found its way to Melbourne, it’s captain Dwight Towers being one of the last remaining US naval officers on the planet. He meets Moira through the Australian liaison officer and his wife. Once it is established there is no hope for the human race, the characters fill their remaining time living life as though nothing is wrong.
This is my main issue with On the Beach. It has such a grand theme – the characters know the end is coming, they have a finite amount of time left, yet they concern themselves with banalities like choosing an electric mower or planning a vegetable patch. There is a five page description of a car race. It just felt so underwhelming. There’s no panic, there is a lot of fustiness and stiff upper lip. The old-fashioned language is charming, if a little irritatingly repetitive. I suppose I felt that Shute had an ideal opportunity to discuss concepts about human mortality and the futility of all activity when we know our lives will ultimately come to an end. It was a very polite, middle class take on the end of the world and just didn’t feel quite right to me. I discussed this with a few friends who had also read it, they all loved the book and felt I was being a bit harsh. They were heartbroken by the ending, which is incredibly poignant and sad as are other moments in the book, but the delivery left me a bit cold.
My overall feeling having now read these two books is that Shute was a writer with great ideas, but an unsophisticated and clunky writing style. A great editor may have done wonders with his texts, but we’ll never know.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Last year I read a book called The White Goddess: An Encounter. A memoir by Simon Gough, nephew of Robert Graves, about his experiences in Majorca in his late teens. When I started reading The Go-Between, it felt very familiar. There are many similarities between the books, including inexperience and youth, broken trust and the loss of innocence during the heat of summer.
Leo Colston is in his 60s sometime in the 1950s. He finds a box of things in his attic. The bits and pieces in the box bring forth a memory of a summer spent at the house of an upper class school friend in Norfolk. The memories crash over him like waves as he tries to purge himself of this sad episode of his youth. Leo is an outsider at his school, overlooked by most until his black magic tricks coincidentally come good and increase his popularity overnight. He suddenly has confidence in himself and confidence in his mystic qualities. Although it means leaving his mother for most of the summer, Leo accepts an invitation to spend time at his school friend’s house during the holidays. Leo is wholly unprepared for his visit to Brandham Hall in the summer of 1900. There is a heat wave and he only has heavy winter clothing with him, he comes from a different class, he is not used to spending time with so many people and he obviously stands out.
At Brandham Leo meets his friend’s older sister Marian who is expected to marry Viscount Winlove, the local aristocrat recently home from the Boer war, but disfigured after a horrific war wound. Both are kind to Leo and Marian understands his embarrassment, recognising his discomfort in his inappropriate clothes. She takes him to Norwich to shop for new ones. He instantly feels like he fits in wearing his new outfits, he is no longer the outsider. He idolises Marian, just like Simon idolises Margot in The White Goddess. When his friend falls ill and can’t play out, Leo explores the area. He becomes friendly with local farmer Ted Burgess who he once saw swimming in the local river. Ted entrusts Leo with notes to give to Marian telling him they are about business. He becomes their messenger. They call him their postman. Subconsciously, Leo knows the notes are not about business, but he continues to deliver the letters because he trusts Marian. He is at the cusp of puberty, his exploration of the local countryside mirrors his need to explore his feelings about growing up. He likes Ted, but knows he is in a different class to Marian, he is fascinated by his masculinity and confidence and as a boy without a father Ted becomes a source of information. He comes to admire Ted to such an extent that when the Brandham guests play cricket against the villagers, Leo is torn between wanting the house guests to win and wanting Ted to score the winning runs for his team.
The Go-Between is a beautifully written work of secrecy, deception, underhandedness and the typical British stiff upper lip. It is richly descriptive and vivid. Hartley evokes the heat and colours of the countryside until you feel you are walking with Leo through the dells of Brandham sweating in the summer heat. Leo is a snob, but he is also a boy who knows no better and is looking for answers from those older and wiser than him. They let him down during his summer in Norfolk; he puts his trust in them and they deceive him. It is an episode that effects the course of his life. I felt for Leo as he languished in that limbo between child and adult; too young to fully comprehend what is going on but old enough to know something is up. There are some lovely passages and wonderful lines that say so much more than the few words that make them. I loved The Go-Between for its depth and the layers of meaning, for Leo’s innocence and Marian and Ted’s lack of innocence and the brazenness of their relationship. This would be a fabulous novel for a holiday and perfect to read in the sultry heat of summer.
Oh dear. It has been exactly a month since my last proper blog post (can you tell I was educated at a Catholic school? That sounds very like a confessional!).
The last review I wrote was of Clay by Melissa Harrison. That same evening I went to an event at a local library and met Melissa. She read a passage from her book and then spoke to lots of readers, including me. It was lovely to meet her, chat about her influences and her memories of Guildford, which was her haunt as a teenager (actually her words were “I used to come here for nights out and to snog boys” brilliant!). She also brought a lovely box of things, which were instantly recognisable as TC’s bits and bobs he keeps under his bed. She read my review while on the train to the event and we talked about skills and knowledge handed down through generations. She told me a sad story about a horrible break-up that drove her to Dartmoor to be alone to get over it. While she was there she remembered things from her childhood – trees, birds and plants and this knowledge memory acted as a form of therapy. She said her next challenge is to teach herself to identify trees in winter. To a lot of readers our conversation may seem dull, boring and a bit geeky, but we also had a sideline chat about Mixmag magazine (I used to read it – she used to write for it), which shows neither of us is as square as our map/trees/birds chat might suggest!
Anyway, none of that explains where I’ve been for four weeks. I haven’t been anywhere – just here. I’ve had a lot on my mind – not necessarily a lot on my plate, but certainly lots to think about and take up my head-space and it’s distracted me from writing. One thing distracting me at the moment is applying for jobs. I haven’t applied for a lot, but those I have been interested in, I’ve spent a long time thinking about and preparing my application. My time out of the job market has helped me forget how time consuming it can be.
Although I’ve not been updating the blog, I have been reading. I’ve read a couple of interesting books over the last month, but I haven’t read anything that’s really got my heart racing and kept me up late at night wanting to find out what happens, which may also be why I haven’t written much.
I feel like I’m back on track now and want to get some reviews up on the blog over the coming weeks, so watch this space and thanks for being patient!
We are the clay that grew tall.
When I was younger, my Dad taught me how to read an OS map. Not just what the symbols in the legend mean, but how to read the landscape and compare it to the features on the map so you can easily find your way. We would stand on top of a hill, holding the map, looking at geography like valleys, rivers, villages, roads, fields and woods, then look at the map to see how these features are represented. He must have taught me well, as recently while out walking with some friends and paying little attention to where we were (because we were chatting) we realised we were slightly lost. I took the map and had a look around. It wasn’t long before I saw where we were by finding the field sloping away in front of us, the copse behind us and the fork in the path ahead. I think he started me off with my obsession of “checking the map”. I don’t own a SatNav, I like ticking off the towns and villages as we travel, I like to know where we are in relation to somewhere else (Mr FH will be sniggering at this as he thinks I am bad with directions, but that it different to being able to read a map). It is knowledge that had become part of me, it is some of the “old way” passed on. When my son’s school is closed for council elections soon, Dad is taking us both out for more map reading skills and therefore handing down the knowledge to another generation.
Melissa Harrison’s book, Clay, is not about maps, but in a similar way to my map story, it is about knowledge concerning our natural world passed down through generations. It is about noticing what surrounds us and being aware of natural habitats and the seasons that dictate the lives of plants and animals. Her story of TC, a boy from an inner city estate and largely ignored by his mother, Jozef a lonely immigrant worker, Sophia an elderly woman protective of the triangle of park outside her flat and Daisy her precocious granddaughter, is beautifully woven with the changing seasons in the park and on the common. She integrates the changes in the seasons, the movement of animals through the urban landscape with changes in the characters’ lives as some struggle to survive, others struggle to understand or be accepted.
I’ve lived in a city and can imagine the pathetic strip of grass and trees complete with graffitied benches and overflowing bins used mainly as a thoroughfare from one road to another, desire paths weaving across the turf. I’ve lived in a place where you recognise the faces of those regularly coming and going, not knowing who they are, but assuming things about their lives based on what you see and who you see them with. Jozef and Sophia both notice TC wandering the park and common on his own, often late at night. Daisy notices him playing and wants to join in. Jozef notices Sophia shuffling along the high street, she notices him sitting alone on the benches. Their lives are linked by their proximity but they all have their own struggles.
The main thrust of the story is inter-generational friendship and how it can help ease the loneliness the sometimes comes from living in a city. Jozef knows a lot about the land, he lost his farm in Poland but cannot forget what he knows. He befriends TC who finds solace in the park and common after his father leaves. It is a very sweet friendship based on knowledge. TC wants to learn, Jozef has knowledge to offer. This boosts his confidence having felt useless ever since arriving in the UK. Naturally, such a relationship is suspicious to some. Similarly, Sophia has knowledge she is willing to share with her granddaughter, but it is not as willingly accepted or wanted. TC, Jozef and Sophia combat their loneliness by focussing on the changes in the landscape, how the trees change with the seasons, how the birds’ activities are dependant on the time of year and how the animals resident in the park strive to complete their circle of life.
It is the beautifully described passages on nature that make this book a pleasure and easy to read. I wasn’t sure where the story was leading, but it didn’t really matter, I enjoyed walking through the seasons with the characters. I have to admit to not being completely convinced that TC would have gone almost completely unnoticed by his mother, social services and his school for the best part of a year. I was surprised that TCs father showed up out of nowhere and bemused at Daisy and her mother’s change of heart about Sophia. I felt Jozef and TCs story was more believable and engaging on the whole. But these are small quibbles because Melissa’s writing is lyrical and absorbing, she has told this story from a unique perspective and done a good job. Her love of nature and landscape comes through in her writing without being too preachy. It has made me think about my green space. Despite being always on the lookout for my garden birds I am being more observant of the changes in my garden and how the inhabitants use it. I’ve even downloaded a birdsong app to my phone!
I am hoping to meet Melissa Harrison this evening at a World Book Night event at Guildford Library. I look forward to chatting to her about Clay and seeing what exciting things she brings along for her show and tell.
PS I think I was even more engaged with this story as the names Sophia and Daisy feature in my close family.
My favourite new book of last year was Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers. It’s special to me because it evoked such an emotional response when I wasn’t expecting it to. I still think about it now, many months after first reading it. It is an earthy book, a book of the land and nature. It gets under your skin and your fingernails (if you know what I mean). I was pleased when my friend Trueblood chose it for her bookclub earlier this year and I asked Ben some questions to help with their discussion. His answers form the majority of this Q&A (with his permission, of course), last week I asked him some further questions about his forthcoming work. Here’s what he had to say:
Please give me a short biography?
I was born in 1976. I grew up on a nice sedate, lower middle class estate in the north-east of England. I remember neat lawns, the miner’s strike, summer holidays, spirited people. A sense of safety in the world. I was and still am close to my family. At the age of 10 my grandfather killed himself then at 11 I was seriously ill and had a kidney removed (AFH: weirdly, we have this in common). That was my first awareness that life is fragile.
My childhood was a happy one, though I hated school. In my teens I played in bands, voraciously read fiction, took drugs, met girls. I went to university and studied literature. At the same time I started writing for the now defunct Melody Maker. I interviewed pop stars. After graduating with a low-level degree from a provincial new university I became their staff writer and moved into a squatted building in South London. From 1996 I travelled widely with bands on various rock missions as the paper’s staff writer, and wrote novels in my spare time. I barely slept. In 1999 I went freelance and embarked upon many more years writing for many magazines. I spent a lot of time in cold dressing rooms and strange hotels across Europe and America….
Fiction was always my first love though and I published a lot of stories and poems in small press journals and anthologies during this time. I also had many attempts at writing novels. I have a stockpile of unpublished works.
In 2001 I vomited blood on a plane from Los Angeles and stopped drinking. Soon afterwards I began to concentrate seriously on fiction, and my first novel The Book Of Fuck documented this time. From 2003-2006 I published a series of non-fiction music books and also co-ran a self-financed record label. In 2009 I moved back up north, to Calderdale, West Yorkshire where I have thrown myself into writing novels with a new-found intensity that borders on the dangerously obsessed.
Pig Iron is a book about travelling communities, what research did you
have to do?
I did research the old-fashioned way, really: by reading books. But also talking to people, being told anecdotes, watching documentaries, reading old press cuttings. It’s a subject I was interested in long before I actually decided to write a novel set in that community.
John John Wisdom feels more at home outdoors than anywhere else. What about you? Do you take inspiration from your natural surroundings and landscapes nearby?
Oh, definitely. As a child I climbed up lots of mountains and now every day I try and walk in the woods or up hills or across the moors. Even just for a few minutes. I lived in London for 12 years and that was the thing I struggled with most – the lack of open space and fresh air. I like to watch the season’s change, observe bird and animals and plant-life. I actually know very little about the theoretical/technical side of nature – the science of it, the naming of species and so forth – but instead still feel an emotional response. I like being around animals. I like watching their behaviour and habits. I like weather. I like rain, snow and sunshine. I like to exhaust myself in order to prevent my brain from running away with itself. It’s true what they say. Fresh air: it’s good for you.
The book is set in an area deeply affected by Thatcher’s policies that depressed the local mining industry. Is your book a metaphor for the social inequalities in today’s Tory Britain?
It was only after the book came out and a Guardian reviewer said the same thing that I thought that, yes, perhaps it is. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to get that point across but sub-consciously I think the book does work as a metaphor for Thatcher’s extreme prejudice against The North as a whole, and serves as an outlet for my anger at what she did – and what Cameron and co are doing now. Because in recession and/or under the Conservatives, it seems as if the poor and marginalised are always the first to be demonised and further disenfranchised. It’s happening again now with the unemployed, the disabled, the foreign nationals. After 15 years of paying tax I tried to sign on for a brief period last year when there was no freelance work and was effectively told, in the nicest terms, to piss off.
The book contains several violent scenes yet the end is quiet and calm did you consider a more bloodthirsty ending?
Yes. I considered having a much more violent showdown at the end with John-John wreaking revenge and retribution on his adversaries, but that seemed a clichéd cop-out too reminiscent of spaghetti western films. I wanted to show him as someone who has advanced beyond his background and disadvantaged upbringing, and who has ultimately become a better man than anyone else in his small world. He is actually the only moral person in the entire novel, and I wanted to reinforce that through the ending.
I’ve seen one commentator compare the writing in Pig Iron to Salinger and Golding. Do you see this as a “coming of age” novel?
I see it as a novel about consequences. Cause and effect. And also about man’s animalistic impulses – how violence has not yet evolved out of us as a species. I suppose in that sense, thematically at least, it could be seen as similar to Lord Of The
The narrative in Pig Iron is sort of stream of consciousness, why did you chose this style and how does it help the tone of the book?
I never really considered it stream of consciousness as to me that suggests a sort of free-flowing, spontaneous and often disconnected / meandering type of prose, whereas Pig Iron was quite heavily re-written a number of times and the sentences pared down. But, yes, it is certainly written from inside the minds of its two narrators. Hopefully this style gives a heightened emotion and a different sense of perspective that a third person narrative would provide.
I’ve not read your other books, but I imagine “The Book of Fuck” to have autobiographical elements and Richard (a fictionalisation of the disappearance of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers) is about a world you know well so what parts of you can we find in Pig Iron?
I think John-John’s love of nature, his isolationist aspect and disillusionment with the horrible ways in which some people treat one another, are essentially me. Like him I abhor violence too.
You’ve been reviewing a lot of music and interviewing musicians recently, is this influencing your current fiction writing much?
I’ve done paid freelance music journalism since 1996 – aside from doing copywriting in the advertising world it’s the only job I’ve had – so the two of always gone hand in hand really. Last year was quiet but over the past few months I’ve been back out there interviewing more bands than ever. I get about fifty press releases for new albums every day. Tonnes of stuff. More music than I can keep up with. I think I’ve interviewed eighteen bands these past three months, and reviewed a lot more music.
I like the discipline and economy of journalism – the quick turnarounds, the limited word counts. And I like talking to rock and pop stars. I listen to a lot of dark music which possibly infiltrates my fiction. My previous novel Richard was completely in that world but I don’t think writing about music is particularly influencing my current/future stuff at all. That said, I have been working on a novel which I described to someone as being like “if DH Lawrence made death metal”. It’s not, but I liked the sound of that.
What made you first decide to write novels and how does it differ to journalism?
I have been in love with literature all my life and being a writer is all I have ever wanted to do. Journalism was a good way to learn how to write, and to just about make a living while doing so. Also, I’m terrible with authority so self employment seemed like a good option. How does it differ to journalism? In the obvious way really. Fiction is fantasy, escape, kingdom-building, playing God – whereas with journalism you are bound by facts and at the mercy of your editors and each magazine’s differing house style. I think both feed the other.
I’ve read about the literary movement called Brutalists that you started a few years ago with some other writers. Pig Iron has the raw honesty the movement talks about. Could your book have been published by a large/corporate publisher? How has it been received? Has publishing changed since you started the movement?
I love reading, writing and books but I don’t much like the mainstream publishing world. I’ve been published by tiny publishers and huge publishers and feel it is easy to get lost, overlooked on a big publisher – if you can even get a foot in the door in the first place. The mainstream industry has tried and tested ways of doing things and if you or your writing doesn’t fit squarely into those methods then it is doubly tough. Pig Iron was only read by one corporate publisher who turned it down because “stories set in Northern towns tend not to sell” but fortunately Bluemoose had the guts to publish it.
The publishing world is quite Oxbridge and for all the recent technological advancements doesn’t really change that much. They want Hot New Things. They want novels that Tell Us Something. They want Narrative Arcs and Marketable Story Hooks. None of the other big publishers would even read Pig Iron. Yet still: it is by far my best received book and I currently get a few emails, messages and online reviews each week from readers who have reacted positively. It was runner-up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. I’ve heard from farmers, oil rig workers, hairdressers, prison officers, bare knuckle fighters, travellers, academics. It is a key text on a creative writing MA at a London university and has been entered for various prizes by lecturers.
I sleep on a bed of rejection letters. I light fires with them – but I’m not bitter about it. My attitude is to ignore the publishing world, just keep writing and hopefully everything will work out in the end. The business ebbs and flows but the written word is immortal!
You wrote a post on your blog last year called “2012: A year in writing” which made life as a writer sound very unglamorous. What keeps you going?
I love my life. I love writing. I’m always broke and often fraught with financial concerns, and have to skimp on many things to survive, like clothes and food and entertainment, but I feel a great sense of freedom that is worth more than any money. Besides…writing. It’s not exactly back-breaking is it? Really it’s a luxury.
What’s your next novel about and what else are you working on?
I’ve written two novels. One is about a young girl who abducts a baby that has been placed in her care and goes on the run in Cumbria, pursued by a sadistic priest. The other is about a vile pig farmer who kills a girl then falls in love with her. that one is set in the remotest corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Along with Pig Iron they collectively form a very loose trilogy of rural noir. Folk fiction.
(Asked last week, so slight overlap with the answer above) I know you’ve got a couple of unpublished novels under your belt at the moment, what else are you working on right now?
As far as I can tell I have a new novel coming out in 2014. It is set in Cumbria and the main protagonist is female, which is a first for me. It also features a priest. And a wooden leg. Then I am about to start re-writing another novel – the “if-DH-Lawrence-made-death metal-but-not-really” one. It’s by far the darkest and most disturbing work I’ve written. I read a bit recently and felt ill. I actually offended myself.
You recently announced on your blog and twitter that you have written a novella to be published by Galley Beggar Press and available in the summer. What can you tell me about it?
It is a novella, but there is no prose in it – only dialogue. So in a way it’s a play,but there are no stage directions, so it’s not. It’s very much a novella. It’s called Snorri & Frosti and is about everything else I tend to write about really – life and death. It concerns two brothers who live in a log cabin in the mountains in an unnamed northern European country. They are old. It is snowing. One of them has a headache. I would say it is slightly influenced by Beckett but I’ve never actually read his work nor seen it performed. The set-up is maybe a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Well, there’s three acts anyway.
How is writing a novella different from writing a novel – or isn’t it?
I suppose it’s the difference between a sprint and a marathon. Snorri & Frosti was written in a short, intense burst in sub-zero conditions. The pace of a novella is much easier to maintain, whereas perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel is keeping focused on the story and the tone for months or years at a time.
You told me it was slightly too long to be a short story. When does a short story become a novella?
The eternal question. Who knows, really? I don’t think there is a rule-book, or if there is I’d rather not see it. I’d say 10,000 words is about as long as I would go with a short story, and this novella just tops that. It could be five times the length but I think it would lose something if I stretched it out that far as that as it all takes place over one day and it was only ever something I wanted to write over three or four days.
Are you influenced by other media like art, film or TV?
Massively. Especially film and photography. I visited many photographic exhibitions while writing Pig Iron and would say it was as influenced by a few key contemporary documentary photographers – Janine Weidel, Don McCullin, Chris Killip, George Plemper – as any author. Music too.
Who are the writers, modern and classic, you go back to time and again, and why?
Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, DH Lawrence, Daniel Defoe, Roald Dahl, Gordon Burn, Ted Lewis, William Wordsworth, David Peace, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, Derek Raymond, Denis Johnson, Jean Genet, Henry Miller.
What are you reading at the moment?
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. Its brilliant. Also Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, which is a ripping yarn. And Sight & Sound magazine. I like that. It’s probably the most intelligently-written magazine out there.
Recommend a book that will surprise us – why should we read it?
I read a lot of books about nature, animals, landscape and all things countryside-related. The best I’ve read in recent years of ‘Waterlog’ by Roger Deakin, which is about his love of outdoor swimming in Britain. It only came out in 1999 but is already an undeniable classic in its field. (AFH: see right Mr FH reading it at the moment!)
A big thanks to Ben for answering my questions.
Last night I watched the second half of Out of Sight, having not been able to stay up and watch it the other night. It is a great film and testament again to Elmore Leonard’s ability to write cinematic stories. It was all down hill for Jennifer Lopez after this film, she has never done anything since to match it, whereas George Clooney has gone from strength to strength. The soundtrack also does it for me. The original score by David Holmes is beautiful. There is a scene where Foley and Karen meet in a hotel bar and talk about fate and what might have happened had they met under different circumstances. Foley says:
It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”
I’m really interested in that notion of fate, I love a story where one decision, one action can effect the course of your life. Ian McEwan does this sort of thing really well; what if Robbie had destroyed the letter to Cecilia in Atonement? And then there is the age-old philosophical question; what if you could live your life over and over until you got it right and maybe undo your mistakes?
Kate Atkinson explores this question in Life After Life (at last, you’re all thinking, she’s got to the point!!). Ursula Todd dies moments after being born on a snowy night in 1910. She immediately tries her life again with a small change in circumstances and manages to survive a little longer. The early chapters are short as Ursula negotiates her way through several failed attempts to stay alive. Each death results in a small change, sometimes she learns and tweaks things she has influence over to stay alive for a little longer, sometimes circumstances around her are different that lead to her survival. As she grows older the chapters are longer, she shows caution, but is sometimes also willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of changing things next time around. It takes her some time to get past certain obstacles and find a route to adulthood but as she says “practice makes perfect.” She negotiates her lives through different husbands and different countries, learning and changing small elements.
As a little girl she has fearful moments and worries about things in her day-to-day life, she has a funny feeling that she remembers things before they have happened. Her mother sends her to a psychiatrist who talks to her about reincarnation but I was never really sure Ursula knew what was happening to her on a conscious level or whether her subconscious was acting as a guide to alter small things to get a different result.
That would have been quite a different life, perhaps a better one. Of course, there was no way of knowing these things.
There is a moment where she feels exhausted, as though she were 100 years old, and she may well have lived for 100 years at that point. As the book progresses it seems as though her conscious self understands more of what her subconscious is telling her and she begins to plan how things will end up and how she can change things for next time. She comes to accept her fate.
Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the food and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced.
I’ve enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s writing for many years. I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet back to back. More recently I’ve been amused by the exploits of Jackson Brodie. There is a charm and underlying wit to her writing which is repeated in Life After Life. But what makes this book as exciting to read as her early work is the sensitive way she’s dealt with this grand theme of fate. Although Atkinson works in the classic “what would you do if you could go back in time” act, which might be a turn off for some, she tackles this theme with everyday sometimes unremarkable events that could occur in all of our lives. Using ideas all readers can relate to, renders the scenario more believable than had Ursula tried to change the course of history every time she was reborn.
Atkinson is also daring with the structure. It is a brave writer who rewrites whole scenes with only small changes knowing that the writing and story is good enough to keep the reader’s attention. I loved these rewritten scenes, watching out for the alternative actions, some of which were so subtle and nuanced it required attention. It is the sort of book that leaves you thinking about life and the decisions you make. I spent days wondering which of my own decisions, if different, might have changed the course of my history. It was a joy to read and has been lovely to discuss with other readers and bloggers, it’s felt like being part of an important publishing event. Life After Life has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The shortlist is announced on Tuesday and I’m positive she will be on it.
Thanks to Alex in Leeds for sending me her review copy as part of her Literary Blog Hop