Book Review: Behind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s quite brutally in a review for my university newspaper (rather uninspiringly called Ripple). So disgusted was I by the opening page, I discarded it and consigned Atkinson to the list of authors I Will Never Read Again (this list exists entirely in my head).

Then, a few months ago, I was lent Life After Life, her Bailey’s Prize nominated novel (it was simply the Women’s prize the year of her nom) and loved it. Since then I’ve been on something of an Atkinson feast, eating up her novels in an attempt to satisfy myself after those years of wilful self-denial.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum is the latest in her back catalogue to make it to the top of my  To Read Pile (this does exist in physical form) and I can now stop admonishing my undergrad self’s disregard for it. While it’s a lush read full of wry wit and juicy descriptions, it’s definitely Early Atkinson. There’s a great deal to admire in the 400+ page novel that sweeps between generations of the Lennox family, with the youngest Ruby, born in 1952, narrating our journey through the years. There’s plenty of trademark Atkinson word play and amusing observations, but the narrative arc gets rather lost in all the cleverness in a way that she learnt to avoid in Life After Life where the complex plot is dealt with so deftly (practise makes perfect as  Behind The Scene…’s Ruby Lennox would no doubt observe).

Protagonist, Ruby Lennox narrates her life from the minute she is conceived during an inspiring union between between her permanently furious mother, Bunty and oafish father, George and we see everything through her sardonic eyes. Ruby feels adrift in the Lennox family,a family defined by tragedy, wrath and an inability to be happy, and is convinced from the minute she is dispelled from her mother’s womb that she was swapped at birth. But as she takes us back to visit her great-grandmother Alice and her large brood – amongst them Ruby’s grandmother Nell – the genetic patterns are firmly stamped in Ruby’s DNA.

There are large dramas  – the Lennoxs have a propensity to die young –  in among the smaller domestic crises.  Atkinson’s skill is not only finding the poetic in the mundane, but the mundane in the dramatic. Ruby’s life is brutal , her dissatisfied mother has a tongue as fierce as barbed wire and a heart hardened by unfulfillment, and Ruby’s childhood is strewn with grief and loneliness – I don’t think she once gets a hug. But there is a joyfulness to Atkinson’s writing, which is just as well as there’s a lot of it in Behind The Scenes… as we meander from Edwardian to post-war times and back again. And there’s so many characters, many of them dead, that they clutter the story like the ghosts that lurk on the stairs of the living quarters above the Lennox’s pet shop (Above The Shop – Atkinson loves a capital letter for effect As Do I).

The York-born author has grown into her clever yet chummy style. The humour that pumps through her novels reminds me very much of Hilary Mantel’s wry observations – I was reading the Wolf Hall author’s Beyond Black concurrently and the stories would sometimes weave themselves together in my mind so similar are their styles. And like Early Mantel, Early Atkinson is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan, even if it’s just for the chance to saw you prefer their early work best – although in my case it’s quite the reverse.

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: Us by David Nicholls

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

I’ve always stayed clear of David Nicholls’ novels out of sheer prejudice, not letting actual plot facts get in the way of his reputation for bouncy, implausible romantic storylines. I dismissed One Day as schmaltzy and unrealistic without even reading a synopsis. And having seen the film of Starter for Ten, I believed my quota for warmly funny, quirky stories about happiness against the odds had been fulfilled.

But Us sounded harder nosed, it had after all been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and we all know that novels don’t get a whiff of a Big Prize without a dose of misery to elevate it to Proper Literature status.

Us is very far from Thomas Hardy-bleak, but it’s a novel that combines humour with life’s harder moments, a half smile with teary eyes. Us is Douglas Petersen’s story of his relationship with Connie that at the beginning of the novel is on very shaky ground after she announces her intention to leave him after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage. Can a pre-planned family Grand Tour of Europe persuade Connie not to throw in the martial towel? It’s unlikely, but Douglas isn’t about to let the woman he adores slip from his life. So off we pop to the continent as we follow the Petersens on their often chaotic, but hugely entertaining journey across Europe’s great cities.

Douglas is a proper – not a trendy – geek, a biochemist with a real zeal for fly-fires. Connie is – of course, we are in Nicholls’ land –  the complete opposite, a free-wheeling artist who is late for flights and leaves the dishes until the morning. I came to realise quite quickly that Nicholls has no interest in challenging stereotypes. All the characters behave true to form from the anally-retentive scientist to the boho-artist, while Connie and Douglas’s teenage son, Albie, is moody, messy and often malicious (to his father anyway). This adherence to stereotype isn’t as annoying or as formulaic as it sounds because the story that Nicholls conjures up around this cast of cliches is heartwarming, engaging and occasionally embarrassing-yourself-on-the-bus funny.

Petersen doesn’t get it all his own way. Nicholls has given his one-personal narration enough rope to hang himself at times (see the ‘the glitter wars’ chapter ).  Like all the best storytellers Nicholls allows Douglas to develop without telling the reader what he’s like and as such, you’re never quite sure whose side you are on. Connie can be smug and self-obsessed. Her dismissal of science as boring and her frustration at Douglas’ struggle with culture (he does try) smack of an art school try-hard and for all her bohemian ways she seems rather priggish and unopen to ideas outside of her arty box. But, god, Douglas must  be a hard man to live with, despite his good intentions, his moodiness and self-righteousness emanate from the pages. In short, these are all too human characters and you feel their trials keenly.

Like Douglas Petersen, Nicholls isn’t a showy writer, but his style is far from pedestrian. It’s a brilliantly structured novel that flips between the present and the past, giving the reader enough clues to the outcome of both in the oscillating chapters to keep us eager for more details and givs the narrative a crucial structural reality.

I loved Us, it could be frustrating, it could be a little bit cutesy and slightly too ‘nice’ (the ending feels right in the context of the novel, but the outside world wouldn’t be so kind ) but it’s an ultimately joyful, funny exploration of a successfully, unsuccessful family.

Us by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe published by Blue Door

It’s sometime in the future (although we’re not told when). England is very hot, so hot that rather than running out to frazzle themselves in the heat, these newly sun-savvy Brits opt to stay in air-conditioned rooms (an unimaginable future). Lots of bad things  (war, floods, bonkers weather) have happened, although we’re never told exactly what and why. The Isle of Wight, has – for reasons that are never made clear  – become an outpost for hooded hooligans, making it less a 1950s idyll, more a Hackney in the 90s.

Living amongst these hard-nosed yoofs is Beth, a school teacher with a secret. Her husband, Vic, was a soldier in one of those wars we’re never told about and was shot in the head. His post traumatic stress was treated with a new technology – the Machine – that was meant to wipe bad memories and replace them with nicer ones. But something went wrong, and early adopters (among them Vic) had all of their memories wiped, including those innate in us. Vic is, when we first meet him, an empty shell, who can’t remember how to be human and has spent the good part of five years in a care home. But Beth is determined to get her husband back (physically and mentally), the only problem is that the Machine, the only way of restoring Vic’s memories to him, has been banned. Can a black-market model be the answer to all her problems?

Of course, not. This is a dark tale with very little (any?) chinks of light. Written without quotation marks, the narrative is a continual, relentless barrage of bleakness. This would be OK if I felt we were getting somewhere with this tale set in our near future (which, sadly, still includes Tesco). But the story was a little stodgy and the lack of a backstory left me feeling like I was fumbling about in the dark for narrative purchase. Why was the world in such disarray? The ozone layer is mentioned once, something happened in Iran – which presumably isn’t the fault of the ozone layer, but who knows – there were floods, there may be more and London has a huge, ugly flood defence running the length of the Thames and spoiling the view from the South Bank, tsk. Why is Beth living on this island of reprobates? Why is it an island of reprobates?

All these niggles are kind of besides the point, as the real subject of  James Smythe’s tale is the age-old story of technology taking on a life of its own (think Frankenstein’s monster with an iCloud account). But The Machine only really cranks up towards the end when the boundaries between reality, truth and memory become blurred in a tense and surprising finale (the ending is great in its in muddiness, it genuinely took me my surprise and shook me out of my nonchalant detachment from the story).

I liked Smythe’s vision of the future that was believable, if frustratingly sketchily drawn, and there was hints of a great story that would occasionally spark to life only to become stuck like the spinning beach ball of doom. But I do love to be tripped up by a novel, as I was with the ending to this sci-fi tale, so the sometimes hard slog through The Machine’s internal workings had a rewarding pay off.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott