Posts Tagged ‘world war II’

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Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother’s. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson’s opus.

Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize, Waterstone’s Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.

This is a magnificent and wonderful book.

Recapping the premise briefly, because I’m sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd – Little Bear – is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish ‘flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.

It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson’s writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!

There are certain fixed points in Ursula’s narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings – the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula’s life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which – as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country – is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars… and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.

The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.

And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.

Ursula’s time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device – if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? – seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson’s depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.

Atkinson’s writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this

“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”

Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose

“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.

or jarring images of Mrs Glover’s tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula’s first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence

“To Pamela’s surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held.”

All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison.

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A fabulous book! At its most literal level!

Reading the blurb of this, the fate of Romany children in Eastern Europe during World War II was an appealing on. Then it mentioned that they come across animals in a zoo which talk to them.

Talking animals have never appealed to me: Mrs Frisbee, Beatrix Potter, Disney… Anthropomorphised, twee, patronising … Oddly I do like magic realism but the idea of talking animals curdles the blood.

This, however, works. And works brilliantly.

Andrej and Tomas are fleeing Nazi persecution having witnessed their family and friends gathered and led into the forest bearing shovels. It is implicit that they are being executed. Told to flee by their mother, they do so and end up in a ruined razed village. There, Night (who almost acts in the same way as Death in The Book Thief) spots them as they slip into the only building standing: the zoo. After being knocked out by a bomb raid, Andrej and Tomas hear the animals talking. It is not clear whether the remainder of the novel is Andrej’s delusion or genuine. In fact the boundaries between narrative truth, history, fiction, dream, story and fantasy are not clear throughout the book.

The animals tell their stories to the children and whether we truly believe them – for example, the lioness appeared to have ended up in the zoo after she mauled the bride of the hunter who had stolen her – in my opinion, becomes irrelevant. Because the stories have power. A truth that exists beyond pedantic accuracy.

I can see many people reacting to this novel negatively and seeing only superficial meanings: zoos are bad; wars are horrible. The heart of the book, however, is deeper than that: it is in the beautiful lyricism of the prose (some of the sentences are truly stunning!) and in the power and value of story telling.

This book has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2012. As has Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls in which the eponymous Monster tells Conor, the main character, three stories in exchange for a story back from Conor. Hartnett’s tale shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of war; Ness’ shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of a parent’s illness. Both books are stunning!

This is a very powerful book: all the more powerful and painful as it is based on historical fact and first-hand accounts.

Lina is a fifteen year old Lithuanian school girl, a talented artist, a member of a loving family. In 1941, caught between Hitler’s fascism to the west and Stalin’s communism to the East, Lithuania was invaded and annexed by Russia and Stalin ordered the deportation of thousands of people to prisons, slavery and work camps. Lina and her family become one of them.

The book opens with the NKVD assaulting Lina’s home and taking her in the middle of the night. The novel then moves in three sections: the horror of the train carriage in which they are imprisoned to travel weeks across Russia; their time in a Siberian beet farm; and finally their further deportation into the arctic circle.

Be careful before choosing to read this book: the horrors and deprivations faced by Lina are not shied away from here. There are moments of violence, brutality, horror and abuse. That said, there are also images of hope: Lina’s drawings, the stone that Andrius finds and gives Lina, moments of generosity from people who have nothing; characters who show dignity in the worst situations; characters whose basic goodness comes out in the painfully few times they can show it.

A hugely powerful book and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I do question whether it is really appropriate for a Young Adult / Secondary School readership? I’d be careful advising anyone under KS4 to read this!

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