25 March 2014
The first quarter – to Ursula’s day out with Izzie
When reading any Kate Atkinson novel you know you’re dealing with a player of games. I knew beforehand – and every reader knows it after a handful of pages – that the game she’s playing here is the one where the author offers alternative outcomes. In 1910 a child is strangled at birth by the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Then, a chapter or so later, the same little girl is born alive. This time the doctor, who had been caught in the snow in the first version, arrives to cut the cord in the nick of time. (Literally, as he points out himself while holding up the scissors he used. Atkinson unaccountably finds this sort of wordplay irresistible.) There are several interlocking time-lines in the life of this character this girl will grow into, stretching as far ahead as 1947.
The first time around, the arrival of her premature death is presented from the dying infant’s point of view: ‘Darkness fell.’ This is a form of words we recognise from the opening chapter, which is a typical Kate Atkinson-style preamble: in Germany in 1930 a woman called Ursula attempts to assassinate a well-known figure. It’s typical in that the circumstances are confusing and sensational at the same time. Is this an attempt on the life of Hitler? Descriptive details point to it being exactly this and seem to be confirmed when, levelling the pistol at him, the woman calls him ‘Fuhrer’. But this first time, we don’t know that the ominous phrase ‘Darkness fell’ that ends the chapter is to become Atkinson’s shorthand way of telling us that Ursula has just been killed. Ursula, if the reader hasn’t guessed already, is the name given to the child who survives her own birth.
So far, any death she suffers is almost always followed, sometimes almost immediately, by an alternative scenario in which she survives. Once she’s survived, she stays alive, so she cheats death time and time again. She drowns at the seaside, then is rescued. She falls from a roof, then she doesn’t, having somehow foreseen that to go on to the roof will be dangerous. She dies from the virulent Spanish flu, picked up from Bridget, the maid, who has contracted it at the Armistice celebrations in London. And then…
…and then we reach a kind of turning-point. Cheating this death isn’t so easy, and that pesky darkness falls three or four times. The crucial difference is that this time Ursula is somehow learning to take matters into her own hands, taking ever bolder steps to prevent Bridget from going to London. Ursula doesn’t actually have a memory of previous scenarios, but she does have a growing certainty that she needs to do something and, the second and third time, her sense of deja-vu becomes ever clearer. It’s like Groundhog Day as, to use one of Ursula’s mother’s catch-phrases, practice makes perfect. After Bridget decides to go to London despite a broken arm inflicted when Ursula trips her, we get ‘Darkness, and so on.’ She is only saved, in about the fourth version, when a man appears at the door, ‘Daddy!’ But is it him? Atkinson doesn’t confirm his identity before we’re whirled away into one of the novel’s five or six other time-lines.
If I’ve made it sound like a gimmick, that’s because it feels like one. Other authors – and I kept thinking of other authors – have used the idea, but almost always with a sense of seriousness. Atkinson, however serious her themes might sometimes be, can never resist a joke. She’s trawled the 20th Century for the key events that other, more highbrow authors often deal with, notably the two world wars. But Atkinson always tips us the wink that she’s a writer of entertainments. ‘She makes us wonder what is going on. Is there a serious point… to the metafictional tricks? I wonder if this is really Atkinson saying, I told you not to believe any of this. It’s a novel, stupid.’ This could be referring to Life After Life, but in fact it’s from what I wrote about When Will There Be Good News? I can never, ever, forget that I’m reading a Kate Atkinson novel.
I should shut up about it and mention what there is beyond the central conceit. But not just yet, because at the point I’ve reached, it still isn’t clear where Atkinson is going with it. The sensational assassination attempt that kick-starts the novel – and which, apparently, leads to a death for Ursula in 1930 – is somehow rectified because she’s just died of asphyxiation in a flat with a treacherous gas fire in the (famously) cold winter of 1947. No worries, you might think, because next time round she’ll somehow know she’s in danger and will take preventative measures. Except by the age of about ten she’s had her ‘sixth sense’ (somebody’s phrase) cured by a Harley Street psychiatrist so that she won’t endanger the lives of any more servants, ho ho.
(In passing, the shrink mentions a concept that seems to have become a trope in recent novels – or, at least, in the novel I’ve just finished reading. In Zen Buddhism there is the possibility of other lives, and in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013) we get both that and the idea of different alternatives, lives that end in premature death, or not. In the post-WW1 world he’s practising in, there also seems to be a reference to the grand-daddy – or grandmother – of British WW1 fiction of the past couple of decades, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy: one of his lost-looking patients is Billy, surely Billy Prior from those novels. If there’s a ready-made literary trope, like a WW1 psychiatrist specialising in shell-shock, Atkinson will snap it up.)
What else do you need to know? Setting: the Edwardian middle-class family milieu we’re familiar with from, say, Pat Barker’s Life Class (2007), A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (2009) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011). As in all those novels, boys grow into men who are killed in WW1, the stand-out ready-made historical event of 20th Century history in Britain. (Atkinson has also already made reference to Bomber Command, the Blitz and VE Day in WW2, not to mention the rise of Hitler that we already know about.) Ursula’s parents are also off the a shelf: mother from an upper middle class family fallen on hard times, father a dutiful middle class banker. The mother, Sylvie, is bored, and we’ve had the first mention of a sighting of her coming out of a hotel with a man in 1923. There are siblings: the typically noisy boy Maurice, the no-nonsense Pamela and the younger boys Teddy and, a clear mistake (I wasn’t thinking,’ says the father, Hugh, in reply to Sylvie’s ‘What were we thinking?’), Jimmy. At least one of the boys dies in WW2.
There’s also Hugh’s wayward younger sister Izzie, whose main function seems to be to offer Atkinson the chance to trawl a racier side of life in the first half of the century. She had to be bundled away to the Germany to have a child born and adopted there before WW1, so there are also chances to speculate on the little ‘enemy’ now living there. And she was an ambulance driver at the Front, so I can imagine a role for her in the General Strike in 1926 when it comes. I’ve no doubt it will come, because a) it’s too big an opportunity for a writer like Atkinson to pass up, and b) we’ve already seen her encountering unemployed marchers on the streets of London a few years earlier.
If I seem not be very impressed with this novel, despite the many favourable reviews it received… it’s because I always end up feeling that Atkinson wastes her talents. She has great ideas which get lost in the hoo-hah of one high-octane plot coup after another. I read her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, when it first came out nearly twenty years ago. The only thing I remember about it is that a character has to face a big decision when a wedding is supposed to be taking place on the afternoon of what is turning into the biggest sporting event in English history: England winning the World Cup at Wembley in 1966. The novel was written in 1995, but Atkinson clearly wasn’t going to let an event like that pass her by unexploited. I can remember feeling disappointed that she’d made it so easy for herself, and she’s still doing it in this, her eighth novel.
Like a Fox in a Hole and the three versions of A Lovely Day Tomorrow
The first of these, which I’d already started to read when I last wrote, takes up nearly a quarter of the novel. In it, Atkinson makes Ursula a complete idiot, allowing several more of those sensational plot coups I was talking about. Ursula reaches the age of sixteen and Maurice brings his pushy American friend Howie on the day of her birthday. It’s a plot device taken straight from the early chapters of Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child – the manly man, the impressionable girl – but cruder. In the garden, in what Ursula reminds him is the ‘shrubbery’, he forces a violently intrusive kiss on her that reminds her of the tongue-press used by their highly unimaginative cook. She is too stunned either to resist what he is doing or to mention to anybody afterwards. And…
The next time Howie arrives he catches her on the stairs and – too stunned etc. – she lets him force himself on her.… I can hardly bear to describe how her whole life tumbles down like a house of cards after this. She doesn’t really seem to know what’s happening, doesn’t realise why she’s putting weight on over the next few months. Then she does realise, and somehow manages to get herself to Izzie’s in London where, not understanding what she’s agreeing to – she imagines a childless couple taking away a living child – has an illegal abortion. Her father is kind about it, but her mother never forgives her. She leaves school… etc. etc. Finally she stumbles into a grotesque sham of a marriage with a frustrated, violent schoolteacher who beats her so badly she leaves, to live at Izzie’s again. Teacher turns up and kills her. (Sigh.)
It’s brutal, very nasty and, as I mentioned, it takes up nearly a quarter of the novel. Atkinson is a good enough writer – and I don’t mean that to sound like faint praise – to take us there, inside Ursula’s head, as she lives through the horror of the rape, the horror of the realisation that she is pregnant, the abortion, her husband’s cruelty in all its insidious forms and the nastiest death so far. I haven’t read such a relentless presentation of male violence since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel which, as I wrote at the time, made me feel soiled. Yet, even as we read, there are the tiniest of nudges that we shouldn’t take it seriously, not really. Several times we recognise the familiar approach of death, especially when there are complications following the abortion, but the darkness recedes (or whatever) and I can almost hear Atkinson sniggering. The death that brings this section to an end is something of a relief…
…and, as soon as we’re into the first version of A Lovely Day Tomorrow, we find that yes, it was all a joke. Howie in the shrubbery? Ursula slaps him before he can even try it. Or, in a different version, she allows the kiss before pushing him off, and has to put up some real resistance on the stairs when he tries to go further. And this, despite some pretty meaty stuff, is what these parallel sections are like: constant nudging reminders of how, this time, Ursula avoids the pitfalls and ends up on a much more even keel. Or on three keels, in fact – although, through some fairly outrageous narrative games that Atkinson plays during a repeated air raid, they all end the same way. Guess. (Contrast the extraordinary plot coup achieved by Sarah Waters in Night Watch when someone close to a main character is, or isn’t, in a flat that is entirely destroyed.)
After the dourly relentless section that precedes it, Atkinson has plenty of fun in these variations on Ursula’s life from 1926-1940. (She seems to be having more fun than I am, but I’ll let that pass. And, oh yes, the General Strike does get a mention, but so far only to show up Maurice as a git: when he and Howie pay their second visit to the family home they are on their way to take part in strike-breaking activities.) What do you need to know? Despite her intelligence and education she doesn’t go to university like her elder sister Pammy, but goes to secretarial college and ends up working in some catch-all Whitehall office compiling statistics on casualties and war damage. Very Blitz. She has an affair with a married man, which he ends on the day before WW2 in the hotel room he’s booked for them: his dull wife and family must come first, in one of the boring Home Counties towns that Atkinson loves to mention. In a later version, in the same hotel room, it’s a time for ‘adieux’, he tells her – but this time it’s a tease (by both him and Atkinson) as he tells her it’s adieu to their old lives, as he’s going to leave his wife. So in one version she is left free to start seeing a former soldier invalided out after Dunkirk, and in another they’re just friends.
And… so? It’s all highly uninvolving. In the first version she’s in rooms in a shared house, as we learn in the gaps in a narrative taking us through the last minutes of her life as she contemplates the shell of the house from where she lies in the ruins of the cellar. This is one of the most protracted and well-handled descriptions of any of her deaths, as she drifts in and out of consciousness, and in and out of memories of this version of her life. In the next version she isn’t living there, having moved out to live with the ex-soldier – but she’s visiting when the bomb hits. And in the third version she escapes, having left the building to save a dog whimpering in terror on the street. But then a wall falls on her. How we laughed.
Remind me what the point of all this is again. Small decisions might lead to cataclysmic changes in our possible futures, apparently, while quite big decisions might not change any outcomes at all, if the writer is in a playful mood. Ok. Will that do, or is there anything else to be covered?
We get to know Ursula’s siblings in adulthood. Pammy, who had gone to Leeds University to study science, is now a wife and mother. Maurice, having done unaccountably well at Oxford, is high up in Whitehall. Teddy and James both seem likeable and, to my mind, practically interchangeable. Jimmy is the one who, in one of the threads in the first quarter of the novel, is in the RAF and killed in the war. This aspect of the novel, and all the scenes taking place at ‘Fox Hollow’ – for some reason, Atkinson loves playing with variations on the theme of foxes – is about as interesting as, say, Downton Abbey. By which I mean not very interesting at all.
And I’ve just remembered that feckless, pleasure-seeking Izzie becomes, unaccountably, the well-paid writer of a daily column in a national newspaper. She’s always getting into financial scrapes – Mr Micawber’s dictum is quoted along the way, because Atkinson loves to quote from the great literature of the past – and she needs to make some real money. What can a poor writer do – I’m talking about Atkinson – but lift another trope wholesale from one of the novels I’ve already mentioned? In The Children’s Book the mother of the big middle-class family is a writer, and bases her most successful book on her son, Tom. It’s a subtle and nuanced exploration of the theme of childhood and the boy’s sense of betrayal, but becomes a convenient device for Atkinson: on the basis of an afternoon spent with Teddy, Izzie writes a hugely successful book based on his imagined adventures. In this version, the boy is slightly miffed and feels vaguely embarrassed. The end – but Izzie has the required fortune, and later marries a playwright. They emigrate to Hollywood during the war… and I can’t remember why I’m bothering to tell you this.
The Land of Begin Again and A Long Hard War
This novel does have a structure, however loose. Following the three paths taken by Ursula’s life from 1939-40 in the parallel A Lovely Day Tomorrow sections, A Long Hard War offers another alternative in which that pesky bomb doesn’t kill her. So we go from 1940 to 1947, side-stepping the small matter of Ursula’s asphyxiation – the gas runs out before the dodgy fire can kill her – and taking her up to early retirement and spinsterhood 20 years later. None of her achievements count for anything, because Atkinson has manoeuvred things so that her inability or unwillingness to commit herself to a man has left her ‘dry’.
I have a problem with the lazy conventionality of this. All her relationships with men have lacked the commitment shown by the far more orthodox Pammy, whom Atkinson rewards with the inheritance of Fox Corner and a fulfilling family life. All Ursula gets is Crighton for the duration of the war, and she even cheats on him in a couple of one-night stands with the boy from the village who grew up to be an engine driver. They have nothing in common and she doesn’t really like him… but the sex is wonderful, and who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t decided to volunteer for the fire service and get himself killed? Her life has somehow proved to be pointless, and she dies from what appears to be a brain haemorrhage. So it goes.
During the hallucinatory moments leading to this death at the end of A Long Hard War, there’s a kind of crescendo of visions of her other lives that Atkinson has let her glimpse occasionally throughout it. It’s been a return of that idea introduced before her ‘cure’, when she could learn from previous experiences that have eventually led to death: we’re to believe that she has some kind of second sight. (I’ve always considered this aspect of the novel to be half-baked and unnecessary, but never mind that for now.) At one moment she describes Hitler as though she’s met him…
…which, in the previous section, she has. While I was reading it, it was something of a mystery what the function of The Land of Begin Again might be. In it, a post-university trip around Europe – in this strand she’s a slightly different Ursula from the one in A Lovely Day Tomorrow, far less passive – brings her to Germany in 1933. There, she meets a nice young man, Jurgen, and has a very different married life from the one she suffered with the psychopathic teacher. Of course, it doesn’t stay happy for long, because soon Jurgen is a member of the Party and just like all the others. The death in this strand is suicide in Berlin as the Russians arrive in 1945: she is there with her ten-year-old daughter, and the only escape from the inevitable rape they will both suffer are the poison capsules the local pharmacist is somehow able to supply.
The setting allows Atkinson not only to indulge the reader in some high-quality historical tourism; by making her German university friend an acquaintance of Eva Braun in Munich – you couldn’t make it up – she provides Ursula with a passport to ‘the Berg’, Hitler’s inner sanctum in the mountains. It’s preposterous, obviously, but a typically Kate Atkinson manoeuvre.
Where was I? In A Long Hard War it’s this university educated Ursula who survives the bomb – because she has a quite different life in London. She has clearly learned from her mistakes in other lives, is now far more qualified than the Ursula who gave up on her education and, while she still does the secretarial course, is able to progress through the Civil Service to a higher level. Maybe this is why Crighton sticks with her more willingly – and why she is in a better flat, sharing not with the characters we met in A Lovely Day Tomorrow but with her old friend from childhood. There’s something symbolic about the way these characters all die in the bomb-blast we know about, strangers to Ursula this time. The dog she failed to save the first time around becomes, in this strand, a pet for different members of her family until its death ‘in old age’. Aww.
She’s in the ARP this time – in A Lovely Day Tomorrow she had a vague sense that she ought to be doing something for the war, but decides her job counts for enough – so there are plenty of Night Watch moments, and a reprise of one of Atkinson’s favourite moments from A Lovely Day Tomorrow: the dress hanging from a beam high above, which on closer examination proves to contain a headless, legless body. (Sigh. When did war porn become de rigeur in any novel about either of these conflicts?)
Anyway, stuff happens, and I can’t believe that even Kate Atkinson is terribly bothered about exactly what that stuff might be. It’s becoming clearer that this really is a version of Groundhog Day, because it’s possible to trace the dead ends in Ursula’s adult life that necessitate a re-boot. (One in Like a Fox in a Hole, three in A Lovely Day Tomorrow, one in The Land of Begin Again and one at the end of A Long Hard War in 1967. There’s also the gimmicky one concerning the dodgy gas-fire.) There’s also a growing focus on ‘what if?’ Those are Atkinson’s quotation marks, because they appear in a conversation in which a character in 1967 tells Ursula off for banging on about how history might have turned out differently. She is talking about what might have happened if Hitler had never risen to power, and if WW2 had therefore not taken place. (This is perhaps the most well-trodden idea in the vogue for alternative history. It appears in the last novel I read, A Tale for the Time Being which, like this one, also kicks around the Buddhist notion of different lives.) We’re clearly being set up for a denouement that relates to that opening chapter in which Ursula attempts to assassinate Hitler in 1930.
In Groundhog Day – which I realise I’ve mentioned three times now – the rule is unbreakable: the main character only has re-runs of a single day in which to handle things better. In this novel Ursula, only dimly conscious (if at all) of what is happening, can re-live an hour, a day, or years. The whole experience of marriage in Germany and the dead-end it leads to takes twelve years, and it’s only in A Long Hard War that we discover that this later version diverges from a moment in 1933 when instead of marrying Jurgen she returns to England to enrol in that secretarial college. But how far back will her magical sense of self-preservation have to take her in order to prevent the dead-end of a loveless life and a war that kills her favourite brother, by getting to point a gun at Hitler in 1930?
Time to find out.
From The End of the Beginning to the end of the novel
And… we’re back to the fateful night of Ursula’s birth in 1910. There’s no point wondering whether Ursula’s deaths are always followed by a re-birth in this way because, in fact, Atkinson doesn’t encourage us to think about it too much. In the early part of the novel, when Ursula is killed about ten times by the age of eight, every death is followed by a chapter headed ’11 February 1910’… But Atkinson doesn’t encourage us to imagine Ursula re-living all her life again each time, and it stops happening anyway once she survives into adulthood: Like a Fox in a Hole, the harrowing sequence concerning the rape, abortion and eventual murder, segues straight into A Lovely Day Tomorrow. (There’s one exception, the death through asphyxiation during the cold winter. This immediately follows the last of the childhood deaths, and has the hallmarks of an afterthought.)
As long as Atkinson can keep the conceit ticking over, she doesn’t need the reader to be wondering about a whole life re-lived for such a tiny change at the end of it. It’s an entertainment, for goodness’ sake, especially in those sections concerning Ursula’s attempts to prevent herself catching the Spanish Flu – and, with an author determined not to let her off the hook, to avoid those ever more outlandish deaths in the bombing raid. Atkinson, in the best Victorian tradition, doesn’t let her survive the raid until she’s made an effort to sort her life out, twice – once in Germany and once in England.
Which, of course, is what the whole novel is about. The game is really between Ursula and an omnipotent god in the form of an author who will keep on killing her until she gets it right. And, being omnipotent, this author can change the rules whenever she likes. So in these last sections those half-perceived glimpses into former lives that hover at the edge of Ursula’s consciousness magically become something else entirely. This time she really does become like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, able to learn explicitly from her previous lives. The psychiatrist who has always ‘cured’ her of her sixth sense doesn’t this time around, because when she seeks him out in adulthood following some weird intrusions from her former lives he helps her to hone her ability to see round corners. Don’t ask about the logic of any of this, because in the forward momentum of this strand, the reader’s attention is elsewhere – like, will she manage to kill Hitler?
No, she won’t. It’s a different attempt that she’s making from the one in the first chapter of the novel, because now she is able to use her prior knowledge of Eva Braun to insinuate herself first into her life and then into Hitler’s circle. But it ends the same way.
The end, yes? Not at all. Instead, we get a happy ending. Ursula might not be able to make the radical change in history that she’d hoped for but, unaccountably, she seems to have somehow manoeuvred things so that Teddy is able to bale out when his plane crashes in flames over Berlin. He’s been a POW and, against all the odds, returns unannounced in 1945. There is no way – is there? – that Ursula could have had anything to do with this, and yet in the final paragraph of the short chapter he appears to mouth the words ‘Thank you’ to her. What’s going on? And why, in the version of February 11 1910 that kicks off this whole strand, has Sylvie, the mother, been able to learn that a pair of surgical scissors will be useful at the birth? ‘Practice makes perfect,’ she says. Ok. And this time, for the first time ever, Izzie doesn’t give birth in Germany to a child who is adopted, but is found by Hugh early enough for him to bring her back to have the child in England. Suddenly, all the characters seem to have acquired some of Ursula’s ability to learn from previous lives….
It doesn’t make sense, and I’m convinced that Atkinson knows perfectly well that it doesn’t matter. Nobody who reads and enjoys this book – and I’ve just been at a discussion in which absolutely everybody had enjoyed it except me – gets bogged down in the logic, or the logistics, of the plot. It’s all a roller-coaster ride, taking the reader to some terrific places along the way, and if one reader is unconvinced, well, who cares?
But we really have reached the end, yes? As if. It clearly isn’t enough for this author so, following the impossibly happy ending it all begins again. (The title of the first full rerun of Ursula’s life from birth to death is The End of the Beginning.) There’s a half-page chapter that suggests that what we’ve read is just one playing-out of an infinite cycle of lives, because we’re in February 1910 again, with the midwife unable to get to the house…. It forms a frame for the novel, as we realise that the assassination attempt at the beginning must have been the end of a previous cycle and… it’s going to go on forever. It’s another sensation to go with all the rest.
Nice extended reviews. I expected to like this novel and did not.
Usually I love Kate Atkinson, as well as wobbly wobbly timey wimy stuff. But somehow this book left me feeling dissatisfied. The fragments were interesting enough, but they did not gel into a whole.
This was my first Kate Atkinson novel. I was drawn in by the concept, but I didn’t love the execution. I was left feeling ‘what’s the point?”. After the first few go rounds, I didn’t care anymore about her trials because I knew everything was going to be erased at some point anyway. The one exception being the only life where she had a child, and that horrible scene the bombed out building where she ended both her’s and her daughter’s life. As a mother, I couldn’t imagine anything worse, so that got me.