Book review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

An enthralling, sometimes heart-wrenching novel this companion read to Life After Life is another Atkinson gem

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I don’t know about God, but I was certainly in ruins at the end of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel as her deceptively light tone took a dive to the dark side as sudden and as catastrophic as a Halifax bomber hit during the Battle of Berlin.

God in Ruins is a companion piece, not a sequel, to Atkinson’s compelling time and death defying Life After Life. While Life After Life was the story of Ursula, A God In Ruins is her brother Teddy’s, the golden light of the Todd family, his mother, Sylvie’s, favourite.

We meet the Todd family once again at Fox Corner, the blissfully Edwardian Home Counties pile, untouched by the ravishes of the blooming century. Teddy is destined for a life in the bank, following in the gentlemanly (bankers were still gentlemen then) footsteps of his kindly, distant father, Hugh. Ted tries to duck and dive his fate, travelling through France one glorious summer, picking olives and discovering cream-soaked dishes that his memory savours through war rations and nursing homes.

He is saved from a life at the bank by the outbreak of war when he signs up immediately to the RAF, a life in the skies, now matter how dangerous, being less deathly than a lifetime in the bank.

Not only does he leave behind his family, but his childhood sweetheart and next-door neighbour Nancy, a super brainy maths type who spends the war at Bletchley Park – and we know this because everyone knows, she’s not terribly discrete about it.

Unlike Life After Life, we’re on a single time trajectory, there are no second chances here. We follow Teddy on his raids over Europe that Atkinson brings so vividly to life that we could be there in the gunner’s seat; the camaraderie of Ted’s unit and the always-on-the brink-of-death tension, the mortally wounded Lancaster bombers spinning down into a fiery unknown, the ditches in the North Sea that they fear will be their watery grave – it’s all terrifying realised.

Ted seemingly outwits all the odds and grows to be an old man. He marries Nancy and they have a  daughter ,Viola, who turns out spoiled, unimaginative, angry and ungrateful, a dud in the brilliant Todd clan. Her children, Sun and Moon (known as Bertie, obv) grow up dented by her aggression while granddad Ted helps them navigate the choppy waters of life like a life jacket of reason and kindness.

Ted is lovely company, an intelligent man with a quiet kindness who, like so many of his generation, hides a chamber of horrors inside his placid shell. Atkinson never shields away from awful things and I enjoy how her writing skips along with glee, only to trip you up with a sentence like this one about a Jewish friend of Ursula’s: “There was a suggestion that Hannie was still alive when she was shovelled into the ovens at Auschwitz.”

Atkinson’s writing is so often about the art of fiction itself and her novels drip with references to literary masters of the past that she weaves expertly into the dialogue with no pretension. Her writing is always a joy, the descriptions of Ted’s bombing raid are tense and alive with movement without being chocked by adjectives. A God In Ruins is as refreshing as a dip in the North Sea yet, at times, heartbreaking and is as beautiful a book as Atkinson has ever written.

  

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer published by Penguin Classics

‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater

Had a wife and couldn’t keep her…’

Penelope Mortimer was as celebrated as her husband John, he of Rumpole of the Bailey fame in the 1960s, but has drifted out of fashion and with it print. But now her most successful and critically acclaimed novel, The Pumpkin Eater, has been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Pumpkin Eater is a short, sharp, quirky little book that has a wonderfully barbed dreaminess to it. Published in 1962, this novel is rich in language, an evocative tale of a Mrs Armitage (we never know her first name) who suffers a breakdown in the linen department of Harrods ground down by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. She is a woman saddled with the constraints of her gender and time.

Twice divorced, when we meet her she is about to marry again. She already has a brood of children – we’re never told how many, in deed Mrs Armitage seems to have lost track of her offspring and seems baffled by their presence.

When she first meets her third-husband-to-be Jake, Mrs Armitage is still married to her second husband and living in a barn. Attracted by the bohemianism poverty, Jake, who is then a struggling writer, falls in love her and she him and, leaving three of the kids in boarding school at the insistence of her father, they marry. Jake becomes an increasingly successful screenwriter and Mrs Armitage moves from poverty to a life of confusing leisure where she’s weighed down by the grinding invisibility of being a wife and a mother.

The novel is an singular description of a woman suffering from depression,  burdened by the domesticity of her life and bruised by many betrayals. There is languid air hangs that hangs over Mrs Armitage, moving through her life as it were treacle, bemused at the presence of all these children and confused by her husband’s infidelity and cruelty. She doesn’t know any other way than the life she is leading – as many women didn’t in the days before the sexual revolution. She was born to breed and dust and not concern herself with her husband’s affairs – in every sense.

The Pumpkin Eater is a loosely autobiographical story. Penelope Mortimer was a woman very much of her time, at the tail end of the 1950s when women were still confined to the domestic world. Mortimer also married several times and had six children. The world The Pumpkin Eater inhabits flirts with Nancy Mitford’s descriptions of a boho world where no one gives a damn about morals, but this is a far more serious, unusual book . I was often reminded of Penelope Gilliatt in the sparse, dialogue-heavy narrative that had an almost filmic quality to it. Mortimer actually succeeded Gilliatt as film critic of The Observer, a fact I gleaned from this great article by Rachel Cooke in the same paper.

The Pumpkin Eater is a darkly funny, wry look at one woman’s world that is so small it’s crushing her, but that isn’t consumed by its own earnestness. Mortimer deserves to be back in print – maybe it won’t be long before she’s back in fashion too.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant is the tale of a country in a fitful peace, Britons and Saxons living side-by-side in a tense standoff held together by a forgetfulness fog spread over the isle by a dragon, Querig.

The amnesia the dragon breaths lingers over the island and renders its inhabitants incapable of remembering all but the thinnest of memories from their past.

I know how they feel, as reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel put me into a mind numbing stupor where I found myself re-reading paragraph after paragraph in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice have a sudden urge to find their son, who left the village several years before. They only have haziest of memories of him and they’re not entirely sure where he is, but they’re also miffed that their neighbours won’t allow them a candle so it seems like a good time to trek across Britain with absolutely no survival skills. Set in a pre-Saxon ruled Britain, this was a time before the island became split into three, a harsh and divided land with no Ubers, so their journey is a difficult one. It’s a Britain of myth and legend, a place where Arthur had recently galloped and where you find ogres dead in ditches, dragons snoozing in pits and pesky little pixies pulling you into the river.

Along the way Beatrice and Axl meet one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain – without the Green Knight – now an old man who travels the land with his trusty horse Horace (Gringolet has long since gone to horse heaven). Beatrice (whose husband calls constantly – and annoyingly – ‘princess’) and Axl also pick up a young Saxon along the way after saving him from his village when his people turned on him. His presence attracts the attention of Wistain, a warrior Saxon who is rather blade-happy and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. His quest is to find and kill the dragon Querig. Standing in his way is Sir Gawain who knows the importance of keeping the buried giant breathing.

You certainly can’t accuse Ishiguro of getting stuck in a writing rut. He’s done period romance (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go) and even dabbled in the detective genre with When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant seems to be his stab at fantasy, a kind of sub-Tolkien work that reads like an assignment for a creative writing course. Is it a parable? A comment of modern life? Or simply a rather half-hearted fantasy?

Ishiguro is a writer whose skills lies in his minimalist prose that is vivid in its sparseness and it’s a style that I’ve found engaging in the two novels of his I’ve read (Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans). But the tone of The Buried Giant is as flat as the Fens and directionless as I would be in those pre-GPS days.

Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro  published by Faber & Faber

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber & Faber

With the release of his seventh novel The Buried Giant, I realised I’d rather neglected Kazuo Ishiguro’s back catalogue. The only work I’d read of his was Never Let Me Go a rather gloomy sci-fi novel that was a long way from the musty Merchant and Ivory air that I’d always rather associated with him. Conversely, When We Were Orphans appealed because I needed the bracing air of a costume drama,  a trip into the well-written past. Plus it was the only Ishiguro in the library.

Ishiguro is not a showy writer. I thought that the science fiction coolness of Never Let Me Go encouraged his brisk prose, but it turns out this is just how Ishiguro writes. His cold, odd style fits nicely with When We Were Orphans’ protagonist Christopher Banks who is a rather strange, slightly shady creature who’s, nevertheless, rather endearing. Written in the first person narrative, Christopher is our good friend the unreliable narrator. As is the Ishiguro way, much of Christopher’s true personality is hidden from us, but we do get a few clues from childhood friends (“My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school”) that reveal our narrator may not be as well balanced an individual as his smooth delivery suggests. But, then Christopher is a literary detective and so obliged to be an odd ball.

Set against the backdrop of the opium trade and the rumblings of war, When We Were Orphans is part detective novel, part love story (with, it’s true, very little romance). It reminded me of Graham Greene in his spy drama moments as well as JG Ballard, partly for the Shanghai element and partly for the prose which, like Ballard’s, is beautiful in its plainness. There’s an old-fashioned tone to it that I enjoyed and a commitment to a tight narrative even when the plot heads a little off centre.

The story starts in 1930, although we don’t stay there for long. After an early childhood in the international settlement in Shanghai, Christopher Banks is living in London, a man with an increasingly successful career as a detective. He is reminiscing about one afternoon in 1923 when he bumped into an old friend  who invites him to a party where he sets eyes on the mysterious Sarah Hemming. He is captivated by her despite being warned by a fellow party guest that he’s far too insignificant to peak her interest. She pops up several times in the novel to prove this man wrong.

Banks is presumed to be an orphan, both his parents having disappeared when he was a boy in Shanghai within days of each. His mum was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign alongside ‘Uncle’ Philip and wasn’t afraid to challenge Chinese warlords and British big businesses about their actions that had led to thousands of helpless local addicts.  Was she killed to silence her? And what was Uncle Philip’s involvement?

Brought back to England by the kindly Colonel Chamberlain, Christopher is brought up by his aunt in Shropshire. The mysterious case of his missing parents casts a dark shadow over his life that he can never quite escape – it shapes his childhood games and choice of career. The novel revisits those years in Shanghai in the run up to his parents’ disappearance where we also meet Akira, Christopher’s childhood friend. We swing backwards and forwards between the past and present  – as the years move on, Christopher’s reputation as a detective continues to rise and, after inheriting a nice little sum from his aunt, his life is comfortable (he even picks up a little Canadian orphan to play families with). But, as he tells the Colonel during a brief reunion in the early 1930s, the past is “where I’ve continued to live all my life. It’s only now I’ve started to make my journey from it”. He must return to Shanghai to discover the truth.

Ishiguro doesn’t believe When We Were Orphans is his best work, and it’s not perfect. The plot rather descends into chaos when Banks returns to China and starts tearing around chasing ghosts and Sarah (who arrived several months before with her buffoon of a husband) in a blur of a rushed end and strange turns that set off the beggars-belief alarm. But despite the that-would-never-happen klaxon, I was taken with Christopher, his unreliable memory and his attempt to flee the past by hurling himself right at it and soaked up Ishiguro’s crisp prose with relish.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Nominated for the Bailey’s Prize longlist and winner of the Costa first novel award, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was the big publishing story of last year. The marketing campaign has been huge – piles of the book greet you at every bookshop door and even the front cover is as much a campaign as design, covered as it is in hyperbolic praise from established authors and newspaper critics.

The marketing push and the enticing cover lines all promise intrigue and an up-put-a-down-ableness so beloved of reviewers. You are going to love this book says everyone.

Only I didn’t.

Elizabeth is Missing has plenty of fans, particularly at Penguin who won a nine day bidding war to secure the rights, wooing Healy with handwritten notes from employees who loved the book (and, presumably, a nice fat advance).

I wanted to be one of those note-writing fans, mysteries with a benign old lady at the centre of them being right up my tweed-lined Marple street. But while Healey is clearly a talented writer who honed her skills on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA, her talents are no match for the overstretched plot she set herself.

Maud is a woman in her 80s who is suffering from dementia. The novel is narrated from her point of view which is clever, but difficult to pull off considering Maud has no short term memory so, um, how does she remember all the things that have happened? Of course this literary device helps enormously when her short-term memory loss allows Healey to be vague about things when she realises the plot isn’t quite slotting together.

Maud is convinced her friend Elizabeth has disappeared. Of course nobody believes her, including me (are we really meant to?), but her search for her friend stirs up painful memories of her sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946 and the two mysteries run in tandem throughout the novel. Maud’s obsession with her missing friend unravels the clues behind her sister’s disappearance and ultimately the two stories clunkily collide and lead to a (frustrating) conclusion. The way the two stories were fused was almost laughable cartoony at times – 82-year-old Maud seeing, say a, pub and being reminded “of the time I met Frank (Sukey’s husband) for a drink”, cue a return to 1946. I expected the page to wobble in front of my eyes.

The post-war story is by far the most interesting of the two tales, although annoyingly bity, just when it hits its grove, we were jolted back to the present day where Maud is repeating her Elizabeth is missing refrain and making another cup of tea that she’ll never drink.

That’s not to say present day Maud isn’t moving, but the one character I really thought Healey caught well was Helen, Maud’s daughter, her exasperation, sadness and fear seeping through the layers of Maud’s muddled mind onto the page and right off it again.

There’s a lot of heart behind Elizabeth is Missing, but the better story is Healey’s own fairytale from 16-year-old school leaver to celebrated author via five years of hard graft where she fitted in writing around her full-time job. Are we more lenient towards debut authors? Are we so impressed by their dedication that we mistake quite good novels for brilliant ones? Maybe (incidentally, Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which would have wiped the floor with the rest of the Costa first book award noms). Maybe in time Healey will write one as good as the marketing people told us Elizabeth is Missing is.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen published by Vintage Classics

Old fashioned and quirky with sentences that beat to a strange rhythm, you’re not even half way through the first chapter of The Heat of the Day before you realise why the once lorded Elizabeth Bowen has fallen out of favour with modern readers.

Bowen’s seventh novel is set largely against the scarred, smoky backdrop of a Blitz battered London in the autumn of 1940. The plot is languid and almost of little consequence, a hook to hang Bowen’s idiosyncratic but often lyrical prose. The slight story centres around Stella Rodney who is informed by a strange little man named Harrison that she first meets at her Cousin Francis’ funeral that her partner, the louche Robert Kelway, is a traitorous spy.

Running in tandem (or rather languishing in the shadows) to the Stella-Harrison-Robert triangle, is Louie a strange, almost-childlike woman who is floundering in a world where she is completely alone, her parents having being killed in an air raid and her husband, Tom, away fighting. In a bid to combat her loneliness, she has frequent one night stands with strangers – the novel opens with her attempting to seduce an irritated Harrison at an outdoor concert in Regent’s Park.

Harrison has got his (wonky) eyes on Stella and is willing to break all sorts of wartime rules to use the information he has on Robert to get Stella into bed. He never comes out and says so directly because no one comes out and says anything directly in The Heat of the Day. Stella, who is an archetypal 1940s siren, all lipstick and vagueness, spends most of the novel mulling this dilemma over, does she bow to Harrison’s demands or place Robert in danger by alerting him that his cover has been blown? Stella does an awful lot of thinking and most of it seems to require a great deal of standing around in rooms, studying the rugs (there’s several lengthy passages describing the room the character is currently standing in).

Bowen’s prose is as pitch-black as wartime London and the atmosphere she creates through her meandering, fractured, almost stagey dialogue and descriptions of this period is hugely evocative and quite different to anything I’ve read about living through the Blitz ravaged city. The Blitz is used as a backdrop in many books, but rarely as evocatively and as honestly as in Bowen’s novel. You can sense the darkness, the shadowy unknowingness, the fear that gave rise to love – or perhaps just a desperation to be wanted. Strangers say goodnight to each other so if they should die they would have left a tiny imprint. I loved Bowen’s description of the gang-like feel of Londoners left behind and also their loneliness in amongst all the ‘we’re in this together’ doctrine. We’re often lead to believe that dicing with death was wonderfully fun, but writers often leave out the loneliness and solitude, the nagging tiredness and the constant tension.

The Heat of the Day is a dense, claustrophobic book that’s frustrating and wonderful in equal measures, full of staccato syntax and odd asides – it’s like Graham Greene re-written by Virginia Woolf. For all Bowen’s commitment to conquering up an ambiance, her writing is also very witty and positively Wodehousian at times, particularly during Robert’s – and on one occasion, Stella’s – trips to his childhood home Holme Dene where we meet his comically awful mother and sister (the brilliantly named Ernestine).

To spit out a cliché – something Bowen would never do – this is a book you will either love or hate. Bowen makes you work hard and the reward is an enticing, enchanting read – if you like it. If you don’t, it’s a meandering, incomprehensible, self-indulgent slog.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson published by Black Swan

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s novels for years, snottily turning my nose up at her books after skim reading the first chapter of Human Crochet for a review for my university newspaper and deeming it ‘daft’. My savage undergraduate review didn’t stop her from becoming one of the UK’s most enduring and loved writers and, despite my first impressions, her novels have continued to buzz around the periphery of my reading list. In a bid to bat away the hum – and perhaps reinforce my opinion – I picked up a copy of her first Jackson Brodie novel Case Histories in a charity shop.

I love a good detective yarn and Atkinson’s lyrical, clever, witty prose completely seduced me. Life After Life, is Atkinson’s ninth novel and the third of her’s I’ve read (not counting that Human Crochet chapter). It leaves present day detective work for a different England that begins – again and again – in 1911.

Ursula has the ability to live her life over again, trying out different paths for size (she is always born on the same day and into the same family). She is first born on a snowy day in February 1911, the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, only to die minutes later, strangled by the umbilical cord. But life is not over for Ursula yet – she gets plenty of other chances, each time tweaking her life in an attempt to avoid the heartache, loss and suffering that each life brings. Some of her lives lead her back along the same path despite taking a different fork (she returns repeating to the same spot in Blitz battered London) and inevitably she learns that she can’t control history – or can she? Ursula survives into adulthood after a few more false starts, but cold, hungry and surrounded by misery in war torn Britain (and, in one life, Germany) her purpose in life becomes apparent. Can Ursula change the course of history and save her loved ones and millions of others?

Life After Life is a journey through a period of time in England’s history that shaped today, from those Arcadian times we’re encouraged to believe in before a bullet in Sarajevo put an end to easy Edwardian days, and would later lay huge swatches of urban Britain and Europe to waste.

Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula Todd is brooding and bright, the novel littered with literary quotes from Milton, Keats, Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. Ursula is less a character than a time-travelling vessel, but in all her guises she’s  unpretentious and lively, sparkling with intelligence and – having learnt the hard way – in her later lives, sassy and ballsy. The cast of characters may not be hugely original, but they are an entertaining bunch, especially Ursula’s aunt Izzie, a glamorous rebel who particularly comes to life when set against Ursula’s stuffy Edwardian mother, Sylvie.

Life After Life is ambitious without being punishing, a family saga with a metaphysical element that is less about the abstract and more about the humane. It’s about those small decisions and tiny moments in time (those Sliding Doors moments) that can change everything (or nothing as Ursula discovers).

This novel is imaginative and far reaching and Atkinson’s easy prose gripping, there is poetry even in her gruesome descriptions of the bomb sites (“he came apart like a Christmas cracker” she writes of one unfortunate victim). Life After Life is desperately sad at times, but it’s also witty and heartwarming and brimming with energy and inventiveness. ‘Daft’ it most certainly isn’t.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.

It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.

I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.

The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.

Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.

Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.

Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.

The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.

by Suzanne Elliott