Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread

I’ve read and enjoyed Anne Tyler’s writing since her first novella – A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990). Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) is one of the best books ever written. Her latest, A Spool of Blue Thread is a richly textured story about a Baltimore house and the Whitshank family who have lived there for two generations. Tyler spools back and forth between the present and the past, unpicking the “embroidered” truth of family legend – the Whitshanks “had a talent for pretending everything was fine” – to reveal self-delusion and disappointment. Junior Whitshank relates how this son of “poor white trash” in the Appalachian Mountains came to live in the house he built for someone else, while his daughter Merrick is proud to tell how she married her best friend’s boyfriend; in the present, Abby Dalton is married to Junior’s son, Redcliffe (Red) and they are living in the house. She loves to reminisce about her romanticized memories of the day in 1959 they fell in love, while forgetting to mention that she was with another boy that day. Theirs are the Tyleresque lives of “unremarkable people”. As accomplished as her 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, it is the best novel Anne Tyler has published in decades.

Three of Abby and Red’s four children have married and left home, but Denny, their estranged eldest son, is unsettled, often arriving unannounced and departing just as abruptly, often in a huff. It is a masterclass of restrained writing, lightened with gentle comedy and pitch-perfect dialogue, revealing characters and their motivations slowly, through sibling rivalry and a rising tension that finally overspills in a punch-up in the kitchen.

‘Who said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child?”’ she’d [Abby] asked Ree in last week’s pottery class.

‘Socrates,’ Ree answered promptly.

‘Really? I was thinking more along the lines of Michelle Obama.’

The complex narrative has more layers than Merrick Whitshank’s wedding cake, held together by recurring motifs and repeated images. Abby, out in her nightgown and slippers during a “derecho”, or fierce storm, to gaze at the “giant tree . . . like a huge stalk of broccoli lying on its side, only with roots”, links the Wizard of Oz, Hurricane Sandy, and the rings on the tulip poplar felled for a wedding photograph. It also resonates with the destructive tree of The Beginner’s Goodbye.

Tyler’s twentieth novel in her fifth decade of writing has playful, knowing nods to previous books: a company for travellers who dislike travelling (The Accidental Tourist); a restaurant named Thanksgiving (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant); Abby feels that life is “slipping through her fingers” (A Slipping Down Life), memory loss (Noah’s Compass), and more. It is as if she has gathered together the threads of her entire oeuvre as an added reward for her attentive, loyal readers.

[Reviewed in the Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015]

Anne Tyler was interviewed for the BBC World Service this week – listen in to the wonderful discussion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which offers a glimpse into her writing and ideas.

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Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

HisforHawk

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald is a rare book – as rare as Mabel the goshawk. Last August I read it in proof for review, expecting it to be a maudlin, self-indulgent memoir. It has since gone on to win the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year, and is currently finding new readers who love it on the other side of the Atlantic. Macdonald’s writing rips up tired conventions and reveals how to write in a tone and language that is both literary and commercial. Needless to say, she won me over.

A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature. —Costa Book Award citation

Review:

Early one morning, “overtired, overwrought”, Helen Macdonald races from Cambridge to the countryside, thinking that a goshawk sighting will soothe her jangling nerves. Watching a pair of goshawks “soaring above the canopy”, she reminisces about a day she spent with her father when she was a child. She was bored, restless, waiting for a sight of a sparrowhawk, and he explained to her the meaning of patience: “when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it […]. If you want to see hawks you have to be patient”. She brings home in the pocket of her jacket “a small clump of reindeer moss […] a little piece of that branching, pale green-grey lichen that can survive just about anything the world throws at it”. Three weeks later, this little memento becomes imbued with weighty significance when she takes an unexpected telephone call: “it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead”.

Macdonald’s fraught memoir juxtaposes an interior journey through the different stages of grief with an exterior struggle to train a goshawk. She travels from despair to hope, and denial to acceptance; but what rescues the book from cliché is her weird, wonderful style, her intellectual passion, and the associations she forges between wide-ranging topics. H Is for Hawk is partly a literary and biographical study of T. H. White and his books, partly a literary history of goshawks, landscape and culture, and partly a psychological study of grief; the writing is rich and revelatory.

An experienced falconer, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a large bird of prey a little short of three inches smaller than a golden eagle, but, after her father’s sudden death, she has a recurring dream about a time when she released a goshawk into the wild: “She opened her wings and in a second was gone. She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it”. The decision to train one, she proposes, is an “inevitable” one for her to make.

Macdonald’s lyrical prose depicts her inner climate with vivid imagery, fresh similes and metaphors, and loose, run-on sentences that cast familiar places, tasks, and objects in a strange, ethereal light. Here, for example, in a scene of high drama and suspense, Macdonald is simply buying a goshawk from a Belfast breeder on a Scottish quayside.

[A] man was walking towards us, holding two enormous cardboard boxes like a couple of oversized suitcases. […] The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. […] She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

She takes the bundle of wilderness into her home. The goshawk perches in her living room, and she names her Mabel.

According to T. H. White, “the thing about being associated with a hawk is that […] it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest” (The Goshawk, 1951). J. A. Baker followed a pair of peregrine falcons through the Essex landscape for over a decade and he also expressed his observations in psychological terms:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch.  We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. (The Peregrine, 1967)

Training a goshawk takes time and patience: two of the things which Macdonald does not have at this point in her life. Her University post is coming to an end and she should be sorting out a new job and finding new accommodation. Instead, she retreats from the world, cuts herself off from human contact and lives within the constrained confines of her Cambridge living room; the telephone is unplugged, the curtains are drawn over the cityscape, and her freezer is filled with day-old chick carcasses. In her self-imposed solitude, she watches the hawk, waiting for that moment when it forgets that she is there. It is a stage in hawk training known as “manning”, and it demands total vigilance and stillness. Attempting to become invisible to the hawk to encourage it to take food from her hand, Macdonald empties herself of all thought, and, in a moment of high intensity, she experiences a similar transfer of consciousness as White and Baker: “as if it was another person’s heart, or something else living inside me. Something with a flat, reptilian head, two heavy, down-dropped wings”.

Arranged in two parts, and a “Postscript” of follow-on research, the fragmented memories arranged “like heavy blocks of glass” enact the emotional impact of bereavement on the psyche. Training the goshawk, she narrows her perception to the hawk’s view during a gruesome period of hunting with Mabel in the English countryside; she “slip[s] into the exquisite, wordless sharpness of being a hawk”. Nature seeps over the boundary of her selfhood. She becomes as wild as Mabel: she kills half-dead rabbits caught between Mabel’s talons, pushes bits of animal bones into her waistcoat pocket, and trespasses across land containing pheasant runs. Her humanity is exposed in the compassion she retains for the prey which Mabel brings down: as Mabel gorges on their innards she is obsessed with killing them quickly to prevent their prolonged suffering.

“ ‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn […], ‘is to learn something’ ” (T. H. White, The Once and Future King, 1958). While the memoir focuses on a particular time-period, Macdonald’s ideas cover a kaleidoscopic range of topics. As well as falconry, it includes topics as diverse as memory and narration, Arthurian mythology, the cult of chalk and history, aeroplane spotting, and environmentalism. A throwaway line from a male friend who advises her to “ ‘leave goshawks to the goshawk boys’ ”, sparks a literary quest to trace gendered bias in falconry books. She is surprised to learn that goshawk behaviour is described according to negative female traits. Goshawks “ ‘can be moody and sulky’ ”, “ ‘disagreeable’ ”, “ ‘[n]ever was there a more contrary bird’ ”, all of which makes them difficult to “man”. However, she finds that, in seventeenth-century falconry guide-books, they are “ ‘stately and brave […] shye and fearful’, and ‘it is the falconer’s role […] to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’ ”.

It is an odd decision to exclude a similar detailed analysis of The Peregrine than is afforded to T. H. White’s writing. Macdonald explains that she turned away from Baker during this period because his quest was a hopeless one, but her description of Baker’s obsessive search for the peregrines in her 2006 study of falcons resembles her own quest for consolation in the natural world: “the diaries of a soul’s journey to grace […] the diaries of a man seeking to become invisible”. She does not accept the view he presents, that “the world was dying, and his hawks were icons of extinction: ours, theirs and his own” (Falcon). White’s shadow hovers over the pages while Macdonald conducts “a quiet conversation, of sorts” with him. She challenges White on his “novice austringer” skills, and takes him to task for ignorant cruelty in the way he trains his goshawk, and she wonders about White and his time alone with Gos. “His young German goshawk was a living expression of all the dark, discreditable desires within himself he’d tried to repress for years: it was a thing fey, fairy, feral, ferocious and cruel”. Rebecca Solnit has written recently about how, as a child, she “disappeared into [books] like someone running into the woods” (The Faraway Nearby, 2013). It is an apt description of the kind of vanishing act that Macdonald accomplishes in her nuanced readings of White’s literature and biography. It is a two-way transference: he haunts her memoir and she inhabits his writing, transitioning smoothly between her voice and the voice she creates for him.

In places, though, it’s as if Macdonald doesn’t trust her reader to make the connections she wants her to see, and the narrative is forced into a narrow pattern that flies in the face of its expansive ideas. The relevance of reindeer moss, for example, is over-emphasised; the opening is set up to show its significant symbolism in the narrative theme of “patience made manifest” that plays out over the course of her journey. At other times, for example, in her etymological detours, she doesn’t push as far as she could go. “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’ ”. There’s a missed opportunity to complete a link with bereavement and patience through her reading of White, although its meaning resonates within the wider context of loss. The “I” in the passage below is White’s, nonetheless, the patient suffering she depicts is also her own.

I must not look the hawk in the eye. I must not punish the hawk, though it bates, and beats, and my hand is raw with pecks and my face stings from the blows of its bating wings. Hawks cannot be punished. They would rather die than submit. Patience is my only weapon. Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer. It is an ordeal. I shall triumph.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing (2003), Margaret Atwood considers “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead”. In hawk mythology, hawks carry messages from the dead to the living. Macdonald developed an interest in falconry as a child, and it was as a child that she first read The Goshawk. In her “archaeology of grief” happy memories of bird-watching with her father punctuate the narrative: “my dad had been my dad, but also my friend”. Re-reading The Goshawk, she follows a path back into the woods of her childhood reading, and to the desire she once had for a different ending to White’s book; that his lost Gos would return to him. When it’s time for Macdonald to send Mabel from her fist up into the sky, to wait and watch for her return, she is fearful that she will fly off forever. Metaphorically, she is also flying with Mabel to bring her father back from the “tangled woods”.

It is to be expected in a memoir about a hawk, which is also about grief, that the hawk would represent flight of some kind, after all, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul’ ”, but the shifting symbolism of Macdonald’s goshawk is not so easily defined. In the first part, it is perhaps hope deferred. When her father dies suddenly, time stops, and she slips into the space between that part of her story which has ended and the new one which is not yet written: training a goshawk is a bridge over the chasm in her selfhood. The second stage in hawk training is termed “carriage”, walking outside with it perched on her falconer’s glove in order to reintroduce it to the world; the goshawk is perhaps the outward manifestation of her grief in the manner of the young girl in Anne Hébert’s poem, “The Tomb of Kings”, who carries her heart on her fist in the form of a blind falcon. Fixing a single meaning onto the goshawk, though, limits the imaginative scope that Macdonald’s empathetic writing opens for the reader; it is also impossible to pin it down. It is easier to establish what the goshawk does not represent: a romantic way of thinking about the natural world.

While the goshawk is an ancient survivor—Macdonald points out that in looking at a goshawk you are looking at history—she discourages a nostalgic longing for landscapes of the past, for rural idylls that exist only in the imagination. In Falcon (2006), she describes how falcons “can’t be seen except through what anthropologist Franz Boas describes as your Kulturbrille, the invisible mental lens your own culture gives you through which you see the world”. Her writing about landscape and history and memory is situated within a movement in nature writing that reframes the tradition of writing about the self in relation to the natural world, such as in writing by contemporary writers, including Robert Macfarlane, and Kathleen Jamie. Following a memorial for her father, an event which marks a turning point for her emotionally, Macdonald realises she has been looking in the wrong places for consolation:

I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. […] ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. […] Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

H Is for Hawk is a mature, accomplished work: a touchstone for future memoirs, bibliomemoirs, and writing that deals with the natural environment and the self.

[Link to Original Review- ‘Grief and the Goshawk’, in TLS, Oct 29 2014]

An Interview with Joel Peckham. Part I: The Approach

Great new writer interview site from Derek B. Miller (yes, he of the terrific Norwegian by Night) AND superb interview with Joel Peckham that offers detailed insight into the writing process and craft – Pt 1

Theinterviewspot

Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus Joel hugging Darius, and his wife Susan hugging Cyrus the morning of the accident that took the lives of Susan and Cyrus

An Interview with Joel Peckham.
Part I: The Approach

May 3, 2014

In 2004, Joel Peckham — father, husband, scholar, poet and writer — was in Jordan with his family on a Fulbright scholarship. They traveled to Aqaba in the south and were on the way back up north in the van of someone they didn’t know well. It was dark and late. The driver did not notice the sand truck in the middle of the road and the van crashed into it killing Joel’s young son, Cyrus, and his wife Susan. He and his youngest son, Darius, survived.

The book, Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery, is a product of Joel’s relationship with this tragedy and the effort of writing about in the years that followed. It…

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Why It’s Bad Form to Tell a Writer to Stop Writing

Clear evidence that not all exposure is good for your writing career. The piece may be ill-thought out tongue-in-cheek, but it’s opened Shepherd to ridicule. I wish her well but hope she retracts or explains her piece. I’ve noticed a number of writers writing for Huffpost to give them larger exposure but they write for free and they are not doing their writing or their careers any favours. So here’s my plea to all writers (and a reminder to self): think before you push the send button.

HyperReality

When I saw the title of this piece, “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It” that was originally published on HuffPost Culture this past weekend, I felt a familiar rage bubble to the surface before I even read the first sentence, which, by the way, was this: “When I told a friend the title of this piece she looked at me in horror and said, ‘You can’t say that, everyone will just put it down to sour grapes!'”

I’m going to, for a second, ignore the fact that the author, Lynn Shepherd knew titling a piece like that would garner a lot of attention and, again, for a second, play devil’s advocate. Had she tackled this subject with an extensive knowledge of JK Rowling’s work, which includes the complete seven book Harry Potter series, I would have been open to hear what she had to…

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University of Brighton: Writer in Residence Blog – ‘Finding Voices, Changing Voices’

From Isabel Ashdown’s blog – on changing gender and find a voice.

Isabel Ashdown

Jake's Eyes ‘While giving voice to the ‘voiceless’, writers are also working to establish their own voice.’ – Karen Stevens, Editor of Writing a First Novel (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

My own debut novel, Glasshopper, first started out as a short story, back in 2005.  It was a piece I had written whilst studying for a BA in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, with a storyline centred on a teenage girl and her mother.  Read more …

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An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

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Interviewed by Kris Kosaka

Bestselling author Ruth Ozeki celebrates the Zen idea of the “positionless position,” the “not one not two” ambiguity of life with her being and her work. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize in Literature. Her earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation were also critically acclaimed and have been translated into 11 languages and published in 14 countries.

Ozeki is half Japanese and half American in ethnicity, holds American and Canadian citizenship and divides her time between New York city and Desolation Sound along the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. Ozeki started her artistic career as a filmmaker, and her documentaries and dramatic independent films have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and in colleges and universities across the States.

In addition to being a filmmaker and novelist…

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A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

Recent Book Reviews

Catching up before book festival season gets going, here’s a round-up of reviews I’ve published online and in print over the last six months.

Colour of MilkNell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk (Penguin) for Fiction Uncovered in May

outofessexJames Canton’s Out of Essex (Signal Books) for The EarthLines Review in March

BarrettMagpiescoverLynne Barrett’s Magpies (Carnegie Mellon Uni. Press) for Pleiades in the Spring Issue 2013 (print)

A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate) for The EarthLines Review in March

Field Notes from a Hidden CityEsther Woolfson’s Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta) for TLS in March [subscription; print]

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Review: Lost Bodies, by David Manderson

Lost Bodies front coverDavid Manderson’s “remarkable” debut novel, Lost Bodies (Kennedy & Boyd) has a rare quality which takes it into two camps that critics usually keep apart- it’s both a literary novel and a compelling page turner and well worth adding to your reading pile if, like me, you’re beginning to turn away from genre-defined fiction and looking at new ways of telling stories.

In the Guardian Review last August in the pre-publicity surrounding  Umbrella, Will Self generated a good debate about “the failure of modernist fiction” and wrote about his anxiety in finding the right form. He ought to add Lost Bodies to his TBR pile.

I reviewed it for Northwords Now literary magazine – Autumn/Winter 2012 issue [here’s a link to the full text in the additional review section ].

and here’s a link to David Manderson’s Blog.

Wishing BookRambler’ readers a very Happy New Year.