June 28, 2015
When I was away last weekend, Kate Cayley’s story collection, How You Were Born, was an ideal literary companion. Slimish, perfectly packaged, each story its own realized vision. Its effect more muted and subtle than Rhonda Douglas’s Welcome to the Circus, another short story collection I’ve loved lately, but still—so very good. Which is important when one is away from home and hoping for reading as excellent as one’s surroundings—the kind of thing you mustn’t get wrong. When our mini-break was over, I could underline its success by the fact that I’d managed to nearly get a whole book read, and I am glad that it was this one.
Kate Cayley is a playwright, poet, prize-winning YA author, and now, with How You Were Born, recipient of the Trillium Book Award. The day the book took the prize, I received my copy in the mail from All Lit Up, which technically means that I liked this book before it was so extraordinary lauded (and therefore am cool and a tastemaker), but one might have expected as much from Cayley. Though it’s worth noting that How You Were Born beat out novels by Margaret Atwood and Thomas King for the prize. Perhaps they should put that on a sticker and slap it on the cover.
It has been interesting to read these stories, many of which are about Queer family life, sandwiched between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which tell of the same. In Cayley’s first story, “Resemblance,” two women and their daughter travel to visit the mother of the girl’s biological father, who is recently deceased. The ending is quiet, ambiguous and uncomfortable as these people consider the weight and meaning of their connections. “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis” is spun from the most marvellous beginning: “My brother Richard was odd. By the time he was twelve my mother yearned for a diagnosis, but he was just odd.” A brother and sister spend their days high up in the backyard birch tree observing their eccentric neighbours, and the sister comes in sight of her own mother’s struggles and powerlessness: “My mother…was more like Richard than she knew.”
In “Stain,” a man attending a wedding weekend meets up with a woman he’d briefly encountered years ago in 2001 at the anti-capitalist protests in Quebec City. In “Midway, Midgets and Giants, Photograph 1914,” a two-feet-seven-inch tall circus performer reads of the legendary romance between Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, their wedding presided over by PT Barnum, and scans the crowds looking for her true love in the stands. And then a different turn altogether with “Fetch,” in which a man who supposes that his double has moved in next door, a harbinger of death, and responds as rationally as you might expect. “Acrobat” has a similar tone to “The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis”, about a lonely girl who is new in town and partakes in an informal acrobatic circus, and learns something fundamental truth about herself in the story’s final moment.
In “Long Term Care,” things get complicated when an elderly father is moved into an assisted living unit, and his daughter fears that he is imagining himself back in Buchenwald, where he was traumatized in his youth. The blind protagonist of “Blind Poet” has a fleeting affair with an artist, the story tied up on classical allusion. “Young Hennerly” is a story and also the title of a creepy song sung to a folklorist collecting stories of residents of the mountains of West Virginia who finds the borders between life and myth begin to blur. In the Alice Munrovian “Boys,” a man finds himself responsible for his cousin who has always been a bit different, and whose own behaviour with young boys skirts the line between innocent and otherwise. And in the title story, a woman tells her child, about the sides and allegiances of motherhood, and of daring the “gamble” of bringing a child into the world.
June 24, 2015
In this book about a teenage girl growing up in the ’50s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I was kind of hoping for the sequel to Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which Judy Blume has called her most autobiographical work and which has dark and deep undertones more so than even a book like Tiger Eyes. In some ways though In the Unlikely Event feels less deep than Sally, though it deals with a situation particular and tragic. In 1951 and 1952, three planes crashed in three months in Elizabeth, something Blume herself lived through and reimagines in her new novel, her first for adults since Summer Sisters. The novel is told from a slew of perspectives, some of them just a few paragraphs long each, and also in fictional newspaper accounts. The centre of the book is the character Miri who is just 15 and embarking upon her first romance when she and those around her bear witness to the destruction and devastation of the crashing planes. PTSD wasn’t something anybody imagined at the time, and so Miri and her friends and family (and other characters on the periphery of their lives) are urged to just get on with things, their trauma manifesting in various ways. And while Blume attempts an allegory in which the plane crashes stand in for the more recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, more than anything the novel is a soap opera. The tragedies cast characters’ lives in new lights and they’re driven to impulsive acts outside their usual frames of experiences, which makes for interesting reading for the most part, if it dwells on junior high school drama a bit too much (as well as a curious bit in which a character is possessed by the spirit of a dancer who died in the first crash). If you’re complaining about too much junior high drama though, perhaps you shouldn’t be reading Judy Blume, which is fair enough, but then the adult story-lines were so interesting and (SPOILERS!) what happened on page 320 had me gasping in horror—more of that please! More than anything though, a new book by Judy Blume is an event, and I’m glad to have been part of it. We’re now upon the season such books were made for after all. But while the novel tied up tidily, it left me a little unsatisfied and I don’t think I’m going to feel better until I’ve gone back and read Sally again.
June 22, 2015
Steve Burrows’ first Birder Murder Mystery, A Siege of Bitterns, was one of my favourite reads of 2014, a smart and absorbing novel that introduced the enigmatic Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune, reluctant police superstar, avid birder and expat Canadian on the Norfolk coast. I loved the premise, was drawn in by the character, and admired the intelligence and fun of Burrows’ writing—and that the mystery’s solution hung on a point of grammar. So ever since I’ve been looking forward to the second book in series, A Pitying of Doves.
And I was not disappointed. Book two finds more bird-related murder and mayhem in Norfolk (and really, how can Jejeune ever doubt that he’s where he’s meant to be, a place with not one but two murders in which his ornithological background is useful). The book begins with a rather gruesome scene at a bird sanctuary where a researcher is found dead beside the body of a Mexican consular official. The powers that be are eager to have the diplomat found innocent of all wrongdoing in the interesting of international relations, but nothing is that simple. Is the case connected to two missing Turtle Doves from a local private aviary whose Mexican owner mysteriously vanished years ago? And what about the bird carver whom neither Jejeune nor his girlfriend Lindy trust completely? Meanwhile, Jejeune’s partner, Danny Maik, is obvious to love right in front of him, and he’s grappling with his own problems. With twists, turns, and plenty of peril (including a dramatic scene on a cliff face), Burrows plots his way to the finish and Jejeune triumphs again. But does the triumph even matter to him? And what’s with the apprehension by officials in St. Lucia? What ghosts are our birding hero still running from?
Burrows is beginning to fill out Jejeune’s backstory, which was tantalizingly alluded to in A Siege of Bitterns. I feel as though this is a series just begging for a prequel. And while the novel requires a certain suspension of belief—a few twists were the result of very convenient coincidences, and does it really seem possible that everything relates back to birding—it was a fun, smart and satisfying read just like its predecessor. Its a novel with a sense of humour too—the birding motif is tongue-in-cheek when it needs to be. But with enough depth and intrigue via great characterization that the story is as meaningful as it is a pleasure.
June 14, 2015
“‘This is what I want,’ he heard a woman saying. ‘That’s what I want.’ She seemed to be addressing the world at large. When he came closer, he saw she was pointing at a forty-inch flat screen TV in the store window.” –from “Caffe Italia”
Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Rachel Wyatt’s new short story collection, Street Symphony. Everybody has a secret life, or else a secret grudge. Bodies fall from rooftops on quiet streets, mothers monitor their adult sons’ email, the woman furtively taking notes at the bar has her own agenda, and then there’s the character walking around town holding a sign asking, “Are you content to be nothing?” Disturbing the quiet of leafy streets has been what Wyatt’s been up to for the last forty years, with novels like The Rosedale Hoax (1977), a satiric comedy set in Toronto’s tony neighbourhood. In Street Symphony, Wyatt’s voice and point of view are just as strong and distinctive.
What that point of view is exactly depends on where one is standing. Or sitting, in the case of the story, “Falling Woman,” in which a character happens to choose a different seat in her living room in which to drink her coffee and read her paper one morning, and thereby observes somebody falling out of the sky. Her usual chair, and she would have missed it. And usual chairs populate the “Caffe Italia” story, which is a microcosm of the collections, in which early morning regulars in a coffee shop tell themselves stories of other people’s lives—and of their own. These are stories about the infinite number of ways that we brush up against each other, but how much we get wrong in the process of knowing. How we are each of us alone, connected only to each other, to paraphrase a line from Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh, which makes an interesting complementary read to this one. How Wyatt’s characters see the world and each other depends on which direction each one is facing, and perhaps whether they’ve got their curtains closed or open, and all manner of other details.
Wyatt is a tricky writer, her narratives rushing forward and trusting their reader to keep up and to follow the twists and turns of plot and dialogue. Characters aren’t introduced but just appear in full force and action, and we’re to put the pieces together to find out who they are just as those characters discern the lives of the people they encounter in their own circles. Some of these stories will invite a reread upon finishing, and even then, not all the details will be clear. Mysteries remain, secrets kept, puzzles unresolved. Wyatt uses elements of intrigue as she did in her 2012 novel Suspicion, not always to full effect here, but still they keep the stories interesting. There are 17 in this collection and they don’t blend together, but have a cumulative force, building like into symphony of the title, layers of city life. And a few satirical suburban cul-de-sac stories reminded me of Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, so we’re not just talking about the downtown core.
June 7, 2015
I’m not quite sure what to do with The Green Road, by Anne Enright. Enright, recently appointed Ireland’s first Fiction Laureate, a literary force whose new books are events, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2007’s The Gathering. I read The Gathering after the award, I think, and I remember finding it very difficult, and no longer remember anything about it. Her following novel, The Forgotten Waltz, was more my speed, more of a straightforward narrative, though critics found it underwhelming. I loved her memoir, Making Babies, which I’ve read at least twice, a book that displays her wry, slightly-off perspective, and her mastery of language. Oh, how Enright can line up words in a sentence, evoke a simile: the effect of “He did have sex with a guy on Saturday night but coming made him feel like he was reaching for something that melted in his hands.” (from The Green Road). Last winter I read her second novel, What Are You Like? from 2000, and found myself spellbound but frustrated by the fragmentation. Sometimes I feel as though fragments emerge from an author who couldn’t quite be bothered to write a “real” book, but then the pieces all came together at the end and I was dazzled all the same.
I wasn’t so dazzled by The Green Road, which is also a novel in pieces, or at least I wasn’t dazzled by how the pieces finally came together because they didn’t really. But then the pieces themselves were really stunning, and it’s remarkable too how Enright portrays 25 years of a family’s history through a few chosen episodes most of which don’t even show characters interacting with other family members. We begin with Hanna, the youngest daughter in 1980, witnessing her formidable mother’s histrionics at her eldest brother’s decision to join the priesthood. Next it’s 1991 in New York City, and the brother has foregone religion for an vibrant life in the city’s gay scene against the backdrop of AIDS. 1997 and sister Constance is awaiting confirmation of whether or not the lump in her breast is cancerous, the entire section enacted in the events of a single morning. Then 2002 and brother Emmet is doing international development work in Mali, negotiating his own perilous domestic arrangement with a fellow aid worker. And finally, their mother, Rosaleen, sitting down to her Christmas Cards in 2005 and contemplating her children so far dispersed emotionally and by geography. She’s selling the house, she decides, a surprising decree that brings everyone home for the first time in years.
Each of these pieces stand alone as a masterful short story. Stylistically innovative too—in particular the first-person plural narration of Dan’s section. They are challenging, stories that begin in the middle of the action, or afterwards, taking a long time to circle back around to it, demanding much of their reader’s attention. If you try to skim prose like this, you’re going to get lost. They also serve well as a shorthand of the family’s place in time through small details, even if the character’s family life is at the far periphery of their experience. And that the family life is at the far periphery of experience is kind of the point of the entire book, their demanding mother both the cause of and reacting to the fact that her offspring are so far-flung. So what happens when the fractured family all return again under one roof?
There is drinking, of course. Enright has done a fantastic job rendering the postpartum experiences of struggling actress Hanna whose been hiding booze in her juice, and is dangerously unstable. Everyone gets sloshed, except put-upon Constance who magics up Christmas dinner (but forgets to buy the coffee) and then after the inevitable explosion when their mother takes off, no one is sober enough to go driving and look for her. And here the novel takes a dramatic turn, a bit Hagar Shipley/Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, the embittered and deranged mother figure getting lost in the landscape, falling off the edge of things. (The kind of woman who thunders around screaming, “Don’t mind me!” at the night sky.)
It is this difficult woman who is the book’s compelling centre, but never quite comes into focus. This is also partly the point—the characters contemplate the impossibility of really describing one’s mother. She is just your mother—a primal knowledge, but also one beyond understanding. The hole at the centre of the novel gets at this contradiction, but it’s also a weakness of the book, I think. And while it’s emblematic that the pieces of the narrative fail to culminate into anything approaching resolution, the reader is still looking for more of a pay-off.
Though it’s there if you look for it. In Enright’s exquisite prose, the illumination of perfect moments throughout the text (even if they are more like beads on a string than links on a chain), in what Lisa Moore describes as Enright’s “distinctive voice. Captivating, wry, tart, wickedly funny – ineffable, ineluctable.” So in the end, I do know what to do with Anne Enright, which is just to read her, read everything, and then go back and read The Gathering again.
June 2, 2015
It is true that I’ve quite possibly been inspired by the title and exquisite cover of Irina Kovalyova’s short story collection, Specimen (a cover that is so exquisite. When I went on the subway yesterday, everybody was staring at me and then I realized that everybody was staring at my book), but the stories in the collection do remind me of nineteenth-century taxonomy specimens. Something that is pinned to a board in flagrant beauty, luminous, remarkable, but not quite living. Devoid of life for the purposes of examination, but how the examiner is fascinated anyway. The variety of specimens, their perfect detail, lines and edges—I can’t stop thinking about these stories. They’re good enough that I can start this review off with my criticisms, and then move along to why the collection is absolutely worth reading all the same.
Specimen is the first book by Irina Kovalyova, multi-talented holder of a doctorate in microbiology, an MFA in creative writing from UBC, who is a microbiology instructor at Simon Fraser University, and a onetime NASA intern. And it’s the singularity of her point of view (the lines, edges and details, the wideness and wildness of her premises) that exalts these stories, though a few of them aren’t completely realized. Some reveal flat characterization, unsatisfying endings, seem to be experiments that were not entirely pulled off. Not atypical first book fare. And yet and yet and yet.
Reading these stories, I kept thinking about Michael Chabon’s essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” which hearkens back to the days (pre-1950s) when the short story fell into the realm of entertainment: “the ghost story; the horror story the detective story; the story of suspense; terror; fantasy; science fiction, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.” These days, he writes, it is novelists who write (and find success) in that wild space between genre and literary and find much success there, while the short story pines away often unread and boring. And so into the wild spaces, Chabon writes, is where the short story must go, and it’s into these very same spaces where Kovalyova takes her readers.
Which makes for a fascinating ride. “Mamochka” is the story of the Chief Archivist at the Institute of Physics in Minsk who is pining for her grandchild far away in Vancouver, and whose own derangement is manifesting in curious ways. “The Ecstasy of Edgar Alabaster” is a story not quite what it seems, a nineteenth-century record of a patient under hypnosis who confesses to sexual perversions and an incestuous relationship with his sister (and then the whole story collapses into a marvellous hall of mirrors). In “The Side Effects,” a patient’s Botox injections smooth out her psyche as well as her skin, but life without its wrinkles turns out to be lacking in magic.
“Gdansk” is a story of numbered items, a narrative suggesting some pattern in a chaotic universe, a post-Cold-War story of youth, adventure and “anticipating the world.” In “Specimen,” a young woman discovers she was conceived via a sperm donor, and must come to a new understanding about the relationship between genetics and fatherhood (and is saved from disaster by her friend who recognizes that her frontal lobe is not yet developed enough for her to make important decisions). That story takes a dark turn at one point, which steers us directly into “Peptide p,” a story of experiments on two children who’d survived an epidemic (tainted hotdogs) that felled their classmates, a story whose creepiness is subtle and slow, and becomes terrifying by the end.
In “Gonos,” a biology professor considers the troubling product of his own genes as he teaches a lecture on the nature(s) of sex and gender, considering the “correctness” or “incorrectness” of life and coming to a beautiful, hopeful conclusion in the end. And in “The Big One,” the ending is ambiguous but maybe hopeful (?), as a woman and her child are trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake, the narrative dividing into two—their dialogue and the woman’s interior monologue. Also a gorgeous ending: “Without imagination, life makes no sense.” A notion that takes us so many different meanings in relation to the stories in this book. The key that holds it all together.
The final story is the novella, “The Blood Keeper,” which I was instantly drawn into. But how could I not be? The first line is, “My father, Viktor A. Mishkin, was the keeper of Lenin’s mummy.” Vera is a biologist studying orchids when her father is sent on a mission to North Korea in 1996 to preserve the body of the recently-deceased Kim Il Sung. She receives a curious letter from him imploring her to follow him to Pyongyang as part of a student exchange where she becomes embroiled in several plots involving love and intrigue. A fantastic read, rich with details and suspense, “The Blood Keeper” reveals Kovalyova as a writer firmly in command of her materials.
So in the end, yes, even with its imperfections (and what specimen does not possess some of these, I suppose) Specimen is a book wholly worthy of its cover. A collection of beauty, light, colour, curios, permitting readers access into worlds that are usually unexamined, those wild spaces in between.
May 31, 2015
My review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, Close to Hugh, appeared in the Globe and Mail this weekend. It’s a book so very much about its own style, its words as materials, and I found myself wanting to respond in a way that honoured that. I’m so pleased with what I came up with, which was a pleasure to write, because there is so much remarkable and interesting about Endicott’s huge and sprawling novel. It’s not perfect, but it’s never boring, and it’s so original and ambitious. I read it twice in April, book-ends to our England trip, and now I’ve got nostalgia now for its pages and how they remind me of suitcases and waiting for our taxi to come.
From my review: “Rich with adjectives, the novel addresses huge and general questions about the meaning of life and the universe with remarkable specificity. ‘We are tiny, unknowable, unimaginably unimportant, far from everything, only close to each other,’ one character observes, which on a macro level is the point of Close to Hugh but, as the novel demonstrates, is also totally wrong. Because of how art itself brings the world into startling, vivid focus, and suddenly every little thing has meaning after all.”
May 18, 2015
I credit this to living downtown, or maybe there are interesting, creative people everywhere, but I have had some incredible fortune meeting other mothers at the library’s baby time. Most recently, Alexis Von Konigslow whose debut novel is The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, a weird, enthralling, and singularly original book. I was drawn to it by its story of a mathematician, because I love books about math and science, which allow me access to these worlds I’m not otherwise privy to. But I wasn’t as sure about the rest of the book’s description—Harpo Marx, who I wouldn’t be able to tell from Karl, and Passover, when I know as much about the Seder as I do about the Marx Brothers. More over, how do you plot a novel whose points are so divergent, against the setting of a Muskoka lodge, no less? But plotting points is what the book is all about, in terms of math and narrative, drawing connections between ideas, and the pattern that emerges is remarkable.
It’s the story of Emily who seeks refuge at her family’s lodge in Muskoka, a near century old Jewish resort, after a devastating revelation from her mother and frustration with her PhD thesis. She has been mapping social networks, showing how math can chart the connections between people, and she wants to apply what she’s learned to her own family and the lodge, but the lines aren’t matching up. She’s having trouble untangling the connections, figuring out who came from where in her family’s complicated network, and what exactly happened years ago when her great-great-grandparents arrived in Canada escaping persecution in Russia. Her confusion isn’t mitigated by her grandmother and great-aunt’s cryptic ways with history and storytelling—Emily’s questions are never properly answered. Was Harpo Marx really once a guest at the lodge? What is the real story of her family in Russia? And what was her great-grandmother’s tragic secret?
Emily’s story takes place in 2003, and is countered with chapters from 1933 when Harpo Marx was indeed a guest at the lodge. These chapters are from Harpo’s point of view, which might explain their oddness, their dreamlike sensibility. Though Emily’s story is pretty strange as well, her character as eccentric as her ancestors’. She and her friend Jonah, who she’s known since childhood and has feelings for, begin to care for a pet lamp called Jazzy. A kookiness that might be characteristic of the Marx Brothers infuses the entire narrative. It is all very odd and slightly skewed, and would be off-putting and fey in the hands of a lesser author, but Von Konigslow is very good. There is something so absorbing about the novel’s crafting, how its two parts start to echo each other, a formula that begins to emerge as to how they are connected, and this is the mystery for which we are reading. This project is large and ambitious, and fascinatingly realized—when I got to the end, I was breathless. It was such a pleasure to read this book, which is unlike any I’ve ever read before.
And now I want to go and watch A Night at the Opera.
- Purchase The Capacity for Infinite Happiness from McNally Robinson
- Speaking of connections, I liked Pasha Malla’s piece about whether you should trust a review by a writer’s friend. (A nice thing about having a blog is that I can review books by whomever I like.)
May 13, 2015
“A Day in the Life of Pinterest” by Monica Heisey is the most ridiculously funny thing ever, plus it’s in The New Yorker, which is pretty darn impressive, and so it was with admiration that I picked up Heisey’s new book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better: A Woman’s Guide to Coping With Life. Heisey is a Canadian writer and comedian in her 20s whose column, “The Grown-Ass Woman’s Guide to Life” for the Toronto website, She Does the City, was inspiration for much of her book’s material. Pieces like, “When It’s Time to Switch to Water” (“You Are Considering Peeing Somewhere That Is Not a Bathroom…”) reminded me a lot of being in my 20s, accompanied by “How to Be a Good Roommate” (good tip: “Do Not Leave a Used Pad in a Container of Half-Eaten Poutine…”), and “Working From Home: How to Do It”. Heist’s advice is either markedly sensible (“Some Notes on Etiquette for the Behaviourally Disenfranchised”: “No one thinks your opinion represent those of your employer, so you can probably relax about this”) or tongue-in-cheek, using humour (“What to Wear to Barf at 30,000 Feet”) to satirize a society that positions women as helpless and idiotic, and seems to like us this way. With pieces like, “Good Mistakes Vs. Bad Mistakes: A Fuck Up’s Guide,” Heisey’s book is less a guide to coping than a manifesto to muck through, eat burritos and figure it all out in your own damn time.
But there are quizzes. I am a bit too old for Heisey’s book (I am only 35, but her bits on “aging” made me want to say, “Bless…”) but the quizzes took me right back to *my* YM days. When I was ostensibly reading to figure out what kind of person I was (ABC, or D), when the reality was that I wasn’t formed yet, but I knew who I wanted to be, and skewed my answers to get the desired result—which was usually D. Which is to say that we were figuring it out in our own damn time even then, we already know the answers but sometimes it’s just nice to have some affirmation. (Heisey’s quizzes include, “Should You Text Them Back?,” “Should You Eat That?”—all answers point to YES—, and “Which Of The Terrible Fashion Mistakes of My Past Are You?” [“You are my sixteen-year-old self’s attempt at ‘boho-chic’…”].)
There is a tendency among the kind-hearted people of the internet to label anything that’s not a list an essay, which is a little bit misleading (and mortifying when I dash off a blog post, and someone shares it with a reference to the e-word). Most of these pieces are too breezy to be essays exactly, which is not to say that they’re less than, but they lack the depth and precision I expect from a really good essay. The book also suffers a bit in comparison with Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (several pieces of which really were essays, as I wrote in my review), similarly structured with lists and doodles. If you hated Dunham’s book, you won’t like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, though if you liked it, probably add this one to your list. And while there can never be too many women telling other women that they don’t need to wear uncomfortable underwear in order to get laid, “Some Gentle Advice on Underwear” was reminiscent of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (a book whose spirit infuses Heisey’s ethos).
Which is not to say that Heisey doesn’t do her own thing. In fact, she’s her very best when she’s doing her own thing. My favourite pieces in the book were removed from the advice-giving—I laughed out loud on the subway reading “Diary of a Bra,” “On Splitting the Bill and Other Nightmares” is indeed a modern day horror story, the Pinterest piece is so absolutely perfect and smart and hilarious, and also, “How to Make Your Apartment Look Like You Read Design Blogs.” Even if some bits of the book are derivative, they still go massively against the grain of what society is telling women all the time, so it’s not like we’re being saturated by these messages after all. And it’s not like it isn’t incredibly brave still for a woman to stand up and be funny, gutsy, and smart (and vulnerable) in public. Not to mention an inspiration.
So, more of this please. As Heisey writes, “Women speaking to women about being a woman remains one of the best parts of being alive and one of the most important things you can do. Do it often.”
May 12, 2015
I’m such an admirer of omniscience, though I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. There are readers for whom omniscience pulls them out of the story, exposing the limits of the fictional universe—that all this is artifice after all—but those very same limits, to me, are the very indicators that there is a fictional universe. It’s the point of reading a book, a whole imagined world to be revealed, and Kate Atkinson is a master at commanding its reins. From her very first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall…”—Atkinson has been part of a grand tradition of English writers (Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, etc.) pushing the bounds of narrative to discover just what a novel can hold and the multitudinous ways a story can be told.
Her last novel, Life After Life, was unabashed in its experimentation. What if, it supposed, a person could go back in her life, over and over again, and have the chance to do over what went wrong before? This was the story of Ursula Todd whose preternatural tendency toward expiration is matched only by her ability to be reborn (“I exist!”) over and over. Her story spans the first half of the twentieth century, encompassing world wars and radical social change. The metaphysical elements of the novel are never clearly delineated—Ursula sort of understands her situation but Atkinson provides no reason for her ability to be reborn and go back in time over and over again. Life After Life is a novel far more concerned with What If? than Why?—to what extent is there predestiny, can we control our fates, what are unintended consequences of that control? Can practice make perfect? What I found remarkable about Life After Life is that Atkinson uses her life-after-life device not just to play tricks, but to build characters too and and develop plot, and how this book of starts comes together to be something altogether whole.
(I am incapable of real criticism of Kate Atkinson. I am simply in awe of her work. But I also thought that Rohan Maitzen’s critical review of Life After Life was excellent, and adds even more texture to a very substantial novel.)
Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, is not a sequel to Life After Life, she explains in her afterword, but “a companion novel.” It’s the life story of Ursula’s brother Teddy in a version of their family’s life that is slightly different than those portrayed in the first novel. Where Ursula died over and over again, Teddy shows a predilection toward survival, miraculously making it through a career as a WW2 bomber pilot. And it is the war upon which his story hinges—an experience both makes him and destroys him. An experiences that does not become less raw as the war itself fades into history, though those around put it away in the past. “You can only go forward,” is a line delivered again and again in the text, a winky joke at the premise of Life After Life, but also blatantly wrong in the matter of narrative because an author is free to put her story together anyway she likes—forward, backward, and round and round in circles. Posing the questions: what if history never entirely goes away? how does it change as we carry it with us? And how is a conventional existence not unlike Ursula’s in reality: “It felt as if he had lived many lifetimes,” Teddy remembers at one point, and who has not felt this way? What is the cumulation of these lives, these selves? What is the thing that connects them?
The reader follows Teddy through his many lives, which are all lived in the same life—through the trauma of his war experiences (whose violence is unflinching but matter-of-fact), the happy early years of his marriage, his tumultuous relationship with his daughter, Viola, and the injustices she inflicts upon her own children, whom Teddy becomes responsible for. As with Life After Life, there is repetition, details slightly changed, conflicting accounts—reading the novel through a similar metaphysical lens as the previous novel is an illuminating experience. And at the end of the story, Atkinson shows her hand with a twist that shall not be revealed, but it’s wonderful and gut-punching, and demonstrates that we’re in the hand of a master writer. As if you ever had any doubts…