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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Atkinson’

I took a break from my Europa Editions reading to enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s latest novel, Transcription. Like Life After Life and A God In Ruins, this book’s characters are defined by WWII. This time the heroine, Juliet, is looking back on her war experience. The novel is bookended by two very short chapters set in 1981. In between, it’s either the early 1940’s or 1950. Juliet is just 18 at the start of the war, an orphan, and she becomes a transcriptionist, working in a small covert operation to spy on British fascists who think they are sharing secrets with a Nazi operative, who is in fact working for MI5. Her boss decides she is capable of more, and soon she is playing a young woman of means who sympathizes with the Nazis, and is infiltrating the close circle of an admiral’s wife and member of the Right Club. That was a real organization of upper class British fascists.

Juliet, as Iris the Nazi sympathizer, has some adventures and does well, and doesn’t go unnoticed by the man who run MI5. But her main role as a transcriptionist goes on. The novel tells the story of the small series of dramas that shaped Juliet’s life during the war and what became of her after, when she ends up at the BBC. Transcription is a beautifully written book, and like Atkinson’s other WWII novels, Transcription examines truth and imagination, and the way they are manipulated for better or worse as people try to do their best in a crisis. When Juliet begins to be Iris for her boss Perry’s operation, he tells her, “Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Miss Armstrong. You have an unfortunate tendency to do so.” There are fake identities, lies, subterfuge, and even in one instance, a counterfeit transcript. People who appear to be bad are good and vice versa. Some things are not what they seem but others are exactly.

And many of the people Juliet feels she knows and can trust, or places in her mental picture of the Service and who does what there, turn out to have more than meets the eye to their lives and work. The end of the novel is a kick — I didn’t see what happens coming at all, but then when I finished reading I thought, “Of course that’s what happened.” And the characters, as in Life After Life and A God In Ruins are wonderful, even the minor characters, especially those on the periphery of Juliet’s life. When someone who is only in a few scenes appears perfectly formed in your mind’s eye, and you hear his or her voice, well, that’s good writing. In both the quality of the writing and the subject matter, Transcription reminded me a bit of another excellent book I read recently, Warlight.

One of my Thanksgiving guests has read some of Atkinson’s earlier work and recommended those books as well, so I’ll have to keep reading her!

P.S. In discussing this post with the Computer Scientist I decided Transcription reminds me of John le Carré spy novels in all the best ways.

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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

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