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SYMPHONY FOR SINGLE VOICE: The late blooming of Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING By Eimear McBride          Text, $22.99

Every so often, you come across a “first book miracle” – the novel, turned down by every publisher, that is finally picked up and becomes an international sensation. Last year, that novel was A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by first-time novelist Eimear McBride. Written in an intense burst of creativity when she was 27, she spent the next nine years hawking it around the UK publishing circuit, but the answer was always the same: McBride showed great promise, but the book, written in an experimental and poetic stream of consciousness, was considered too difficult to sell.

That was until McBride submitted her novel to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press, established in 2011, which is committed to new work. What followed was a literary coup de théâtre. On publication, ‘A Girl’ was both critically acclaimed and snapped up by the public. Anne Enright called McBride “a genius”. The novel won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, offered by London University. Now it’s finally published in Australia.

Born in Liverpool, Eimear McBride was raised in western Ireland and now lives in Norwich. It’s not hard to spot her prime influences – the spicy vernacular of Joyce, the dark imagery of Beckett haunt each page. With lilting phrases, humour, bleakness, she’s an Irish original through and through. “In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new,” says McBride. “I’m very interested in the modernist tradition. Finnegan’s Wake sort of signalled the end of literature, so I wanted to take a step back and try to find a new way forward.”

The result is a novel that is sometimes difficult to read, often opaque and requiring re-reading. McBride pummels and pounds her sentences, stretches, inverts, teases out language till it re-forms into her own particular syntax. It takes a while to settle into her jagged sentences, her backwards-forwards glancings. But ‘A Girl’ rewards and ripples with its own music. You’re in the narrator’s head in every line. The novel is a tone poem written in interlocking movements, a symphony for single voice.

Take this passage, from early on in the novel:

“I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead.  In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling, Lady come back or you’ll get what for.  A mad goat I’ll be. Rubbing bubbles. Worse and worse and hotter than mints I’ll turn my nose at. Always get me. In the hall. You by wormy bit of hair. Lug me rubbing ankle skin up the stairs. She in suddy ocean.”

The story itself reminds me of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls – a young woman’s coming of age in a stifling Irish Catholic community, where religion curbs spontaneity and sexuality is clouded by recrimination. McBride’s heroine is never named. With no male role models to guide her (her parents are separated), her uncle by marriage seduces her at the age of 13. This early onset of sexuality triggers a chain reaction of promiscuity. She’s the girl the boys touch up at school, who goes home blind-drunk with guys at parties, the one pious neighbours mutter about behind twitching curtains. Sex is a source of power, but it’s also coupled with self-loathing. So far, such rites of passage and small town prejudices are familiar fodder.  What sets the novel apart is the narrator’s personal circumstances.

The novel is addressed to “You” – the narrator’s much-loved older brother, companion and protector, who had a brain tumour as a child. He’s never made a full recovery – clumsy, slow to learn at school, the only job he can find is packing shelves. In his early 20s, the tumour returns, more aggressive than before. Now his family have to confront the finality of his death.

“Silent.

Breath.

Lungs go out. See the world out.

You finish that breath. Song breath.

You are gone out tide. And you close. Drift. Silent eyes. Goodbye.

My. Lllllllllllllllllll. Love my. Brother no.

Silent.

He’s gone. He’s gone. Goodbye.”

The poetry here lies in the simplicity as much as the imagery. What is not said makes this passage even more affecting. Throughout the novel there are leitmotifs of water, drowning, getting lost in dark places, becoming dirty, becoming cleansed. McBride’s power lies not only in her virtuosic turn of phrase but in highly visual set pieces throughout the novel. There’s a filmic quality to the writing, particularly in the sex scenes, which are raw, violent and abusive.

It’s clear that the narrator is suffering not only from an ever-present Catholic guilt, but from survivor’s guilt too. In many ways, she’s her brother’s polar opposite, the bright university student while he flounders at home in menial jobs. It’s a difference she feels keenly and her guilt skewers like a blade. Seeking out harmful relationships and physical pain stills her torment for being the sibling allowed to survive – for a while.

He hits hard. I say don’t be done. Don’t be done. I don’t want this he says I don’t want. Just till my nose bleeds and that will be enough. So he hits till I fall over….Jesus he says. I feel sick. But I’m rush with feeling…..In fact I am almost best.”

This desire to obliterate herself leads to the final scenes, a vicious rape in the woods soon after her brother’s death, recounted blow by horrifyingly graphic blow. It is her family’s reaction to the attack, and her Mother’s lack of empathy and understanding, that bring about the novel’s inevitable conclusion.

The title is arresting, and it’s been pointed out that despite her psychological fragility, this girl is not deformed, but half-formed. Throughout the novel the narrator harks back to her childhood, when brother and sister laughed, played and supported one another. It’s as if he were her other half, her second self and without him she is indeed ‘half-formed’. This makes the ending especially poignant, as the reader shares the extent of her loss.

The question now is how can McBride follow this tour de force? ‘A Girl’ is such a one-off,  it would be difficult to replicate and indeed, any novel written in similar style would suffer unfairly by comparison. McBride, in interviews, appears gratified but somewhat bemused by all the hoo-ha. All she lets slip is that she’s “working on something”. That ‘something’ is now guaranteed publication and the bidding wars will be astronomical.

I’ll be speaking to Eimear McBride in a forthcoming edition of my Pageturners podcast on 3MBS..


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Bring Back Boris, Donna!! The enduring appeal of fictional characters

tartt                    goldfinch

Donna Tartt                                                                        Fabritius’ The Goldfinch

When I was growing up, my favourite literary characters included the usual suspects, Jo and Laurie, Jane Eye and Edward Rochester, Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley, Scarlett and Rhett, Pip and Estella. They all felt very real. If they were girls, I would often identify with them; if they were boys, I’d sigh deeply into my pillow. Characters were more important to me then than a novel’s form, style and purpose. As a child, I rarely thought about how a novelist had created plot. Whether I was swept away by a book through my love of characters was my only value judgment.

By my teens, heroes had well and truly trumped heroines in my romantic imagination and I was completely smitten, (eclectically but not necessarily simultaneously) by Howard Roark, Sydney Carlton, Daniel Deronda, Joseph K, Stephen Dedalus, Count Vronsky, Julien Sorel, even the infamous Vicomte de Valmont.

There was usually something dark or dangerous about these male characters – depressed or tortured souls, some had a cruel, sadistic streak; or they were artists and visionary dreamers, philosophers and sinners. All, though, were larger than life, highly intelligent and drawn with insight and empathy. By this stage I had become more conscious of literary devices and authorial voice, and obviously took note of a character’s physical descriptions. Yet in my fantasies, the heroes I longed for were all tall and saturnine and bore a strong resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis or Kevin Klein. It took a few more years (and my first love affairs) for female characters to get a look in once more.

Our attraction to fictional characters is both passionate and possessive. In her book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, author Blakey Vermeule asks: “Why should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return?” The reason, she explains, is curiosity: we may idly speculate about the lives of people we see on trains and buses, knowing we will probably never see them again. But when we read, we are in a highly privileged position, able to go on a journey with characters and enter their world intimately. We know them, warts and all, with an immediacy we rarely have with people we meet in everyday life.

So we fight on the battlefield alongside Napoleon in War and Peace, steal handkerchiefs with the Artful Dodger, glory in Jean Brodie’s prime and approve Martha Quest’s political coming of age. By entering this world willingly, we gain social information that would often be, according to Vermeule, “too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own.”  This trade-off in turn builds attachment to story-line and character.

So much for science.  As readers, we’re hard-wired to seek out memorable heroes and heroines Yet, despite the many novels I’ve read, few characters have stayed with me as vividly as the ones I encountered in my youth. That is until I met Boris, who appears in Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.

Let me preface this by saying that until now, I wasn’t a fan of Tartt’s. I disliked her debut novel, The Secret History. Of course she had talent, but I didn’t care for a murder in a stuffy college committed by a group of over-privileged, over-reaching spoilt brats. So I chose not to read her second novel. But The Goldfinch, published late last year, intrigued me. First, it is an imaginary story about a real 17th century painting, the Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch, painted by Fabritius.  I adore that painting, as I love all Dutch Old Masters. Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt and taught Vermeer. Few paintings of his survive, because he was killed at the age of 30, when a munitions factory exploded and much of his work disappeared with him. The Goldfinch was painted in the year of his death.

In her novel, Tartt surmises that the miniature painting (no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper) is taken by 13 year-old Theo, after a terrorist bomb destroys the New York museum in which it is housed. The Goldfinch is part bildungsroman – Theo’s story – but it is also the story of that painting, of moral ambiguities, lost loves and the enduring power of art in a post 9/11 world.

Early on, Theo says the bird reminds him of his beautiful, delicate, arty mother, who is killed in the blast. The painting, one of her favourites, comes to symbolise everything that Theo has lost.  But this post isn’t a review of this wonderful, wonderful book, its intricate Dickensian story-lines and fully realised worlds which cross, effortlessly, from psychological drama to thriller and back again. I’m celebrating character, because, when we meet Boris, we come across one of the most loveable, maddening and completely believable creations in contemporary fiction.

After the bombing, Theo reluctantly joins his estranged father in Las Vegas. Through Theo’s eyes we see the vast, crass, cardboard emptiness of that city, in which Theo wanders like a lost soul. But at school he meets Boris, another misfit and an instant connection is born. “He was pale and thin, and not very clean, with lank dark hair falling into his eyes and the unwholesome wanness of a runaway, callused hands and nails chewed to the thumb”.

When they begin talking, Theo marvels at his accent. “Though he spoke English fluently enough, with a strong Australian accent, there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent.”

Boris is from everywhere and nowhere, half Russian, half Polish, swears fluently in four languages, a true global citizen. His father is in the mining business, so he’s lived in Australia, Russia, Scotland, New Zealand, Sweden, Texas, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, New Guinea, Scotland, the Ukraine. As we get to know him, we find he’s tough and tender, irresponsible and compassionate. Both boys are motherless only children, living with drunk, physically violent or neglectful fathers, with no parental guidance and supervision. They’re rootless, so cling to each other, and as their friendship grows, they become closer than brothers.

The story of this lifelong friendship is the indelible marker in The Goldfinch, more lasting even than the fate of the stolen painting. It’s depicted without one grain of sentimentality. The boys fight, play truant, get blind drunk, take drugs. There’s a bit of adolescent horseplay, but the relationship isn’t sexual. As adults, both Boris and Theo end up in that murky zone that hovers between outright criminal behaviour and legitimate business deals, but you can’t help liking them for all that because you understand their history.

At first glance, both men appear irreparably damaged from their childhood traumas. Boris is an alcoholic, Theo, still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has a hopeless drug dependency. Yet Tartt ensures their relationship is life affirming. There truly is honour among thieves, loyalty, brotherhood. Sometimes, as Boris himself says, “you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right.”

Part of the joy of Boris is his Russian-inflected, mangled English, which Tartt renders faultlessly. “My official business so called is housecleaning agency. Workers from Poland, mostly. Nice pun in title of business, too. ‘Polish Cleaning Services’. Get it?” He also a Slavic tendency to overdramatise, frequently ending sentences with an emphatic “Never! I rather drown myself!”, or a telling “Pfa!” Boris’ energy, warmth, volubility, enthusiasm (and, it must be said, undeniable sex appeal) add  much to the pleasure of reading the novel. Here he is, reunited after many years, with Popper (Popchik in Boris-speak), Theo’s Maltese terrier he played with as a boy.

Boris – whooping with laughter – dropped to his knees. “Oh!” snatching him up as Popchik wriggled and struggled. “You got fat! He got fat!” he said indignantly as Popchik jumped up and kissed him on the face. “You let him get fat! Yes hello, poustyshka, little ball of fluff, you, hello! You remember me, don’t you!” He had toppled over on his back, stretched out and laughing, as Popchik – still screaming with joy – jumped all over him. “He remembers me!”

I’m pretty good at predictions. I saw Cate Blanchett in a tiny theatre production here in Melbourne in the early 1990s, and urged all my friends to see her saying I’d just spotted the next great star. So here are a few more:

sherlock

Boris will spawn fan clubs. There will be Boris soundalike contests. A vodka will be named after him. Consumption of pickled herring, smoked salmon, caviar and truffled eggs will soar. Benedict Cumberbatch will play him in the movie (not only is he great at accents but Boris, like Sherlock, wears a long black coat). And please, please Donna Tartt, can you reincarnate him in another novel, because I’m already suffering withdrawal symptoms?

In the meantime, witty Claire Cameron from The Millions has penned the hilarious “How to Tweet Like Boris” which I share here: http://www.themillions.com/2014/02/how-to-tweet-like-boris-from-the-goldfinch.html.  I defy you not to laugh.


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Telling it like it was: Mandy Sayer’s troubled memoir

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THE POET’S WIFE BY MANDY SAYER         Published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99

Five months after her marriage to the writer Louis Nowra, Mandy Sayer read a press clipping from the United States recounting the death of the Indian-born writer, Reetika Vazirani, who had killed herself and her two-year old son while housesitting for friends. Her suicide note mentioned the child’s father, the award-winning African-American poet and academic Yusef Komunyakaa. There had been problems in the relationship.

Sayer was shaken. For she herself had been married to Komunyakaa for a turbulent ten years. During that time, she skidded from euphoria to depression. The Poet’s Wife is her recollection of their relationship, from their meeting when she was 22, to their parting, eleven years later.

Although Sayer is a fiction writer (she won the Vogel Prize for Australian writers under 35 for her first novel, Mood Indigo), she’s perhaps best-known for her award-winning memoirs, Velocity and Dreamtime Alice. This is not surprising: few novels are as colourful and extraordinary as her own life. The daughter of an alcoholic mother and Gerry, a free-thinking, jazz-loving father, she spent her late teens and early twenties touring America with Gerry, busking as a tap dancer while he played drums. They earned little, slept in claustrophobic rooms and roach-ridden outhouses, ate one meal per day, dressed themselves from charity bins and mixed with junkies and artists. All of this is recounted in Dreamtime Alice and the current memoir picks up from where Alice left off.

Sayer met Komunyakaa in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, 1985 and the memoir’s Prelude is a sensual, passionate account of their love-making for the first time. “I pressed my face into his hairless chest and inhaled, drawing the scent of his sweat down deep into my belly, where my song always began…. I drank him in, all his sadness and temerity, his silence and saliva, his breath which tasted like damp country earth.”

Yet ten years on, this tender and lyrical start to their life together had turned into a nightmare in which Sayer endured Komunyakaa’s cruel jibes and ongoing infidelities. When she finally left him to return to Sydney, she’d discovered that not only had her husband carried on an affair with a previous lover for the duration of their marriage, but had recently fathered her child. And there were many other women. He was a compulsive liar – he told Sayer he was 38 when their met, but in fact he was 44, twice Sayer’s age – he’d managed to falsify his army discharge papers and passport. The more Sayer delved, the more deceit she uncovered. At the end, she felt she no longer knew her husband at all.

Still, they fell in love. When they met, he was an out-of-work university teacher, poet and Vietnam vet. She recognised his brilliance and the power of his writing won her over. “Even though we’d grown up in vastly different cultures and countries, we’d both known poverty, domestic violence and the expectation that neither one of us would ever amount to anything.,” she writes.  “That was probably what united us more than anything: our shared defiance of that prediction.”

Kominyakaa had his good points: he provided Sayer with a proper home, the first she’d had in years. He encouraged Sayer to go to college and earn her BA, and championed her early writing. When he was unemployed, she supported him by dancing in the streets. When he found work as a university lecturer and began publishing his verse more regularly, she wrote, taught and completed her MA. They moved from the USA back to Sydney, from Sydney to the USA, as job opportunities arose. At the beginning, the sex was mesmerising. She recounts an almost idyllic period of their lives together when they wrote at adjacent desks, editing each other’s work. Yet by the time he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, the marriage was already in trouble.

Kominyakaa was a master of verbal abuse. Insults ranged from taunting Sayer about her weight, her lack of sophistication and basic education; he laughed at her poor housekeeping skills, her inability to cook. He’d go on tour with poetry readings and “forget” to call her, stay out late or hang out with students rather than come home.  Sayer recounts his unspoken surprise – and maybe even jealousy – at her literary successes. He became more and more controlling, even of her own writing, which was the last straw.

Early in their marriage. Sayer miscarried; later, realising Kominyakaa no longer loved her, she terminated a pregnancy. Their disintegrating relationship is symbolised by the caged doves Kominyakaa gave Sayer as a present: after a while, the male began pecking viciously at the female, so Sayer freed them both before one bird destroyed the other.

As Sayer’s depression grew, she described her suicidal feelings in her diary, writing in Spanish, a language Kominyakaa didn’t understand, because she was convinced he was spying on her. At her most desperate, she kept a plastic bag hidden beneath her pillow, so that if things got too bad, she could always suffocate herself. There are fleeting passages where Sayer comes across as a victim, but not for long. This tough, street-smart woman was more than capable of protecting her precious busking patch in King’s Cross by swearing fiercely and taking on anyone who’d dare to muscle in. In her dealings with Kominyakaa, she gave as good as she got, but after a while, he wore her down. She was simply exhausted. More importantly, he’d betrayed her trust.

Kominyakaa and Gerry didn’t get on. There is a sense of Sayer emancipating herself in this memoir, disentangling herself from the influence of the two most important men in her life, to become the writer she is today. The memoir also traces the developing state of race relations from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties, especially in Australia. At one point, after a job interview at Sydney University, where he affects an upper-class accent, Kominyakaa explains to Sayer how important it is for black people to learn to “switch codes” – adopting one pattern of speech with white authority figures that conform to white expectations, another with family and friends. This schizophrenic mind-set dictated by race, Sayer believes, underpinned his own volatile behaviour towards her. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s a fascinating thesis.

Sayer is a natural-born writer. Sentences, similes, reminiscences flow out of her like water. There’s superb poetry in the pain. She recounts this significant chapter in her life with much humour and not a trace of self-pity and you’re left with huge admiration for her courage and survival instincts. What also emerges from this memoir is her unswerving dedication to writing. Innately disciplined, a typical day could include writing in the morning, teaching and studying in the afternoon, teaching a tap dance class at night as well as reading for pleasure.

Mandy Sayer won The National Book Award in 2000 for Dreamtime Alice and The Age Non -Fiction Prize for Velocity. I’d be very surprised if this third memoir doesn’t garner equal awards and praise.

I’ll be talking to Mandy Sayer in a forthcoming Pageturners podcast on 3MBS.


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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction

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THE LAST WORD by Hanif Kureishi             Faber & Faber, $29.99

Several years ago, when I was working as a feature writer for a Sunday newspaper, I was asked to interview a famous singer who was making a comeback after years out of the spotlight. My brief was succinct: “Dish the dirt”, my editor said. “We’ve heard all these rumours – drugs, teenage girls. Find out if it’s true”.

When I met my subject – a mild-mannered, nervous, chain-smoking man – I felt he deserved a chance. I couldn’t bring myself to slam him for the sake of sensationalism. Instead, I wrote a civil, factual piece. The editor was livid. The article was published but I never wrote for that newspaper again.

Scruples and biography don’t mix, and salaciousness feeds our ever-growing appetite for preying on the famous. This is the premise for Hanif Kureishi’s new literary satire, The Last Word. Here, Harry, a young biographer on the make, is urged by his editor Rob to write an “extreme biography”, of Mamoon Azam, an elderly, celebrated Indian-born writer, now living in England. Mamoon’s work is no longer selling. A titillating biography, crammed with lurid anecdotes exposing his sexual depravity might rekindle interest.

“That clever old sly fox Mamoon might seem dull and dead to you”, says Rob. “He comes across as someone who has never knowingly given pleasure to a woman, someone who has never loved anyone more than himself… He has been a dirty bastard, a liar, an adulterer, thug, and possibly, a murderer.” “How common is this knowledge? “You will make it known”.

Harry seems the perfect fit to write a scandal sheet. He has little, if any, conscience, having previously published a biography of Nehru “lightly spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia”. Over the ensuing months, Harry spends time at Mamoon’s gracious country house. He meets Liana, the writer’s Italian, horny, clothes-obsessed second wife, uncovers journals written by Mamoon’s first wife who committed suicide; he travels to the United States to meet a scorned mistress with a taste for revenge, to India to meet Mamoon’s family. Harry gets caught up with the hangers-on of the household, hidden secrets of servants, sexual intrigue and the unravelling of his own private life. Along the way, the blond public schoolboy and the wily elderly émigré joust and parry in the elegant surrounds of the estate. Mamoon, though infirm, is nobody’s fool.

On publication in Britain, the media couldn’t help but point out similarities between Kureishi’s plot and the real-life biography of the grand old man of literature, Nobel prizewinner, VS Naipaul, by Patrick French. Invited to Naipaul’s country retreat, French penned a less than flattering account of the writer as a snob, racist, adulterer and frequenter of prostitutes. Indeed, it’s hard not to see similarities between Naipaul and Mamoon, with his passion for cricket, glamorous women and his “hooded eyes” and Kureishi has admitted to trading off the resemblance in a recent BBC interview.

But that’s not the point. Kureishi relishes scenes of cat and mouse between Harry and Mamoon, as truth and fiction begin to blur. Mamoon is a consummate story-teller who may well be reinventing episodes of his own life. Harry writes his book. But when Mamoon publishes a new work, obviously based on his relationship with Harry and Harry’s girlfriend, the facile, flaky fashionista Alice, the themes of “stories within stories” come full circle. Who, Kureishi asks, really has the last word?

It’s a precarious state of mind Kureishi obviously identifies with. In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying that all media interviews and publicity become works of fiction in their own right. “Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life.”

This account of reality has also become a byword for Kureishi’s oeuvre. After the publication of an early novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, his sister accused him of “selling the family down the line.” Later, his novel Intimacy, an account of a man leaving his wife and twins, eerily paralleled Kureishi’s own family life when he left his partner and twin sons.

Such duality unsettles. Even the title has more than one meaning: The Last Word may well be Kureishi’s last book because, aged 60 this year, he’s implied he may not write another work of fiction. And on the similarities go: Mamoon has sold all his papers to an American university; Kureishi sold his last year to the British Library. Kureishi teaches creative writing – this could be Harry’s fate if his biography doesn’t sell. At the end, you wonder whose version of events is the more fabricated, Mamoon’s, Harry’s, or any of the other characters in the novel, and whether objective truth exists.

It’s a savagely funny book. Kureishi’s a master of punchy one liners. “The past is a river, not a statue”. “A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”. “You’re in the remembering business,” Mamoon tells Harry during one of their interviews, “I particularly like it when you remember things which never happened.”

There are also delicious set pieces, such as a celebratory dinner with Mamoon’s ageing fans, zimmer framing their way into the dining room (all armed with complimentary copies of his works), at which the writer affirms the decline of Britain, the end of mankind and toasts a “happy apocalypse”.

Yet there are longueurs, too, interminable exposition and pages of talk, talk, talk. Kureishi tends to be too clever by half. By working so hard to deliver wit on every page, he sacrifices the flesh and blood of character. True, the novel’s a satire and satire demands  stereotypes. But none of his people feel or sound credible, especially the women who remain shallow, hysterical, obsessed by sex and shopping. Plus, the characters are almost all pretentious or unlikeable. This is not a book you’d care to reread anytime soon.

Far more interesting are Kureishi’s pointed views about the tensions in British race relations, the rivalry between young and old, the precarious state of literature, the frivolities of the digital age. This almost, almost raises the level of the novel from biting comedy to a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts.


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Sins and Sacraments: Ann Patchett’s candid memoirs

My review appears in this month’s edition of Australian Book Review

FebABR        patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett             Bloomsbury, $29.99

In 2006, novelist Ann Patchett found herself in the midst of intense controversy. Truth and Beauty, an account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, had been allocated as a text for freshmen at Clemson University, South Carolina. One parent objected because the book depicted an intense affection between two women, discussed premarital sex, and ‘encouraged (students) to find themselves sexually’. Clemson banned Patchett’s book, branding it ‘pornographic’. Her 2007 Atlantic Monthly essay, reprinted in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is an eye-opening account of her confrontation with American academic fundamentalism. Written with unflagging dry wit, her subsequent address to the Clemson University student body is a courageous, blazing defence of intellectual, academic, and artistic freedom.

Part memoir, part retrospective, the twenty-two essays in this collection build up a composite portrait of Patchett as writer, friend, granddaughter, wife, and investigative journalist. ‘I was always going to be a writer. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve known anything,’ she recalls. Selling her first short story to the Paris Review when she was twenty, she published her début novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), seven years later. Since then she has written six more novels and three works of non-fiction, winning the Orange Prize for Bel Canto (2001).

For many years she combined novel writing with journalism for publications as diverse as the New York Times and Vogue. The discipline of writing precisely and to word limits is evident in her fiction. She generally underwrites, preferring taut to florid, banishing the unnecessary phrase.

Take her personal response to anti-police riots in Los Angeles,  The Wall, sealed with her own memories of growing up the daughter of an LAPD cop. She takes the gruelling Academy entrance exams because ‘I want to tell a story about people who do hard work. I want to explain that living beneath the weight of all those three-ringed binders filled with the neighbourhood dead takes its toll … that being the one to discover children entombed in cement wears you down … To show what’s good. But good, like the police, turns out to be complicated.’

These essays confirm that Patchett’s initial premise for writing is frequently turned on its head by the force of experience. She sets off for a camping holiday in a Winnebago, ‘to expose it for the gas-guzzling, fitness-eschewing underbelly my editor knows it to be’. After discovering the vast open spaces of America, she recognises ‘the Winnebago has set me free. It has made me swim in cold rivers and eat pancakes with strangers and turn down obscure roads with no worry about where I have to be or when.’

Her revisionism is particularly evident regarding her personal life, and here Patchett is unabashedly candid. There’s her hopeless, short-lived first marriage, an eventual rewarding second marriage to a Tennessee physician, and several mistakes in between.  The Sacrament of Divorce and the title story reveal much about her, but these essays also celebrate common links between women who fail at relationships, dust themselves off, and start over. ‘I was as grateful for divorce as I was for my own life, but it had done me in … I saw a much simpler path: if I never married again I would never again be divorced. In short, I had found a way to beat the system. I was free.’

Free – that word again. Free to cock a snook at political correctness and write, blithely childless and content with her dog in her lap, ‘I wonder if there are people out there who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog?’ Patchett’s enthusiasm for new passions discovered in adulthood (including dogs and opera) is infectious.

Some of the most illuminating essays concern her attitude to her craft. Nothing if not practical, casual jobs and an apprenticeship at Seventeen magazine allowed her to pay the bills as she wrestled with her early fiction (proudly, she notes that she was the first to get a perfect score in the T.G.I. Friday’s waitress test).

A former student of Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks, Patchett sets out a road map for wannabe writers: challenge yourself and write what you don’t know; be consistent; ‘writer’s block’ is just an excuse for procrastination. Amusingly, she banishes forever the notion that everyone has a book within them. ‘Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? … One algebraic proof? … One Hail Mary pass? One five minute mile?’

As editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006, Patchett in her introduction uncovers an admiration for a form she visits only rarely herself. ‘The stories offered me their companionship, each one a complete experience in a limited amount of space,’ she writes. The same could be said of this book. Dive in and savour the essays at random, although in a recent interview Patchett suggests reading them sequentially.

Two years ago, Patchett opened Parnassus Books in her home town, after the last bookstore in Nashville closed. Her journey from writer to successful entrepreneur is recounted in her Atlantic Monthly essay, The Bookstore Strikes Back. It sums up her unflagging energy and optimism. ‘Maybe we just got lucky. But my luck has made me believe that changing the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions … If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore … This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.’


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A PASSION FOR MIDDLEMARCH: REBECCA MEAD’S LIFE IN FICTION

mead             ge

Rebecca Mead                                             George Eliot

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead             Published by: Text, $32.99

Why do we love some books more than others, and revisit them again and again? Perhaps we identify with their heroes or heroines; maybe a writer’s style speaks to us in a singular way; or we view the novelist as a role model, a light to guide us.

For Rebecca Mead, that special novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She’s read it every five years or so since the age of 17. Born in England, Mead moved to New York after university and has worked as a journalist ever since. Now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mead’s new work – part memoir, part biography – takes Middlemarch as a starting point to revisit both her own life and Eliot’s. By deconstructing the novel, she re-interprets it through a 21st century lens, and shows how her life has frequently paralleled and been enriched by its story and characters.

As she writes:  “What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? And what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things, and surveyed where I had come from, and thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?”

Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf said in her 1919 essay re-appraising Eliot, “was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.  By then, Eliot had fallen out of favour. Her moralistic authorial interpolations were viewed as sanctimonious, her views on how to build a better society considered old-fashioned, ill-suited to a modern world. Woolf’s essay in the Times Literary Supplement was a first step in re-establishing Eliot’s reputation.

Yet in her day, Eliot’s star shone bright. The daughter of a provincial clergyman, she was unconventional and ambitious. From her early teens she realised she was an agnostic and refused to accompany her father to church.  Headstrong and rebellious, she turned her back on her family’s expectations of a good marriage and moved to London to live independently. She adopted the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ when she first started publishing novels, to be judged impartially by her peers and avoid being pigeon-holed as a “woman writer” (it’s almost scary how contemporary this sounds). But long before that, Marian Evans edited the thinking person’s magazine, the Westminster Review, translated, wrote essays and was an integral part of the Victorian literary scene.

She was not a good-looking woman. Portraits display her big nose and lantern jaw. Henry James describes her as charming despite her unfortunate plainness. But her voice was melodious, her conversation scintillating. When she met the writer and social campaigner George Henry Lewes at the age of 38, she moved in with him freely, even though he was still married.  Despite the shocked tut-tuts of society, they lived together contentedly  for over 20 years until Lewes’ death.

Mead  contrasts this meeting of minds with the marriage of Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea, to the pedantic clergyman Casaubon.  Straight-laced, puritanical and mean-spirited, he is the polar opposite to the passionate Dorothea, a young woman whose stifled  intellectual yearnings lead her to this ill-fated choice. Dorothea longs to escape her provincial roots and become her husband’s partner and helpmate as he writes his great opus, ‘The Key to All Mythologies’.  But he deliberately sidelines her and the work is never finished. Middlemarch portrays a doomed marriage with extraordinary exactitude and empathy. Through her research, Mead traces the possible models for the couple, Mark and Francis (sic) Pattison. He was a young, ineffectual Oxford don. She was a forward-thinking young woman who, unsatisfied by a partner so obviously  her intellectual inferior,  eventually divorced him and remarried.

Still, Mead judges Casaubon more kindly now than on her first reading of the novel. Eliot, she says, was able to recognise the limitations of human beings, and one of her strengths as a novelist is her uncanny ability to write about stumbles and failures, characters whose endings are unspectacular and whose lives are unremarkable. It is this, says Virginia Woolf, that makes Eliot among 19th century novelists, “so large and deeply human.’

Mead’s ever-changing relationship with Middlemarch  and with Eliot herself is at the heart of this book. She literally grows up with the novel and reads it anew with fresh insight and admiration. As an adolescent, desperate to leave her seaside childhood home, Mead  identifies with Dorothea’s  longings for travel and intellectual challenges, yet later she reflects as an adult on her youthful pretensions, and the importance of home in moulding personality.  As a writer, her transition from the provinces to Oxford, to New York and to a career in journalism echo Eliot’s own life path.  Even her relationships are viewed through the prism of Eliot’s experience. On becoming  a step-parent, Mead recalls Eliot’s own emotions towards children not her own whom she comes to care for deeply. Eliot’s social conscience, far from preachy, is a reflection of seriousness and commitment to society which Mead also strives for in her own work.

The Road to Middlemarch binds two very different women together through their shared love affair with a novel. Exquisitely researched, it sheds new light on Eliot and on 19th century fiction. Mead has written an engaging, wise and fascinating tribute.

I’ll be interviewing Rebecca Mead in the next edition of my Pageturners podcast next month.


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TALL TALES AND SUMMER SATIRE

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After my jetlag was compounded by searing days of 40+ degrees in Melbourne, leaving me and everyone else tired and mentally foggy, I took advantage of the last few days of holiday to tidy up the house, to the sounds of cool jazz and essential books/arts podcasts. My spring – or rather summer – clean was a great way to kick off the new year and I can’t tell you how cleansed I feel after de-cluttering, ruthlessly binning outdated files, and “I should keep this it might come in useful” oddities (anyone fancy a Duck Clock, complete with quacking alarm? Who gave me this? And, more importantly, why?), bundling up clothes for the Salvos and moving read books into boxes, to make room for this year’s crop.

It’s going to be a great year, with new work from amongst others David  Malouf, Sonya Hartnett, John Scott, Janet Turner Hospital and Favel Parrott; internationally, expect new books from Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen. Martin Amis and, a personal favourite, Lorrie Moore. And of course, I’m still working out how much – if any – of the First War commemoration I should cover. A pile of freshly-minted books is eying me accusingly as I write this, but I have copy to write for the Australian Book Review, a grant application, and the second draft of my play to finish off first, so they will just have to wait.

One of the pleasures of holiday reading is that you have time to cover books you wouldn’t normally have time to savour, so I was genuinely pleased to chortle over Richard Glover’s George Clooney’s Haircut (ABC Books, $24.99).  Glover is a humourist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald. Although his work is sometimes syndicated in the Melbourne Age, we don’t have the pleasure of reading his columns weekly, which is a great pity.

Glover has a talent for exploring the minutiae of everyday life. Whether it’s acknowledging the passing of time and accepting his mullet needs drastic, overdue attention – hence the “Clooneyesque” haircut of the title – pondering on the best way to fill out the census, or despairing over his never-ending home renovations, he cracks witty one-liners as easily as shelling nuts. He writes with an enviable ease and fluidity, an empathy for his readers that makes reading him both a joy and a feeling that you’re conversing with an old friend. I caught myself deliberately slowing myself down not to finish the book too fast, making myself wait for one more delicious chapter.

We can all identify with his list of faux-pas and declining standards of etiquette. They include Phone abandonment (leaving your mobile on your office desk, where it will ring constantly with a sickeningly cloying ringtone); Elevator Blindness (deliberately closing the door on someone you can see running to catch the lift); Eyejacking (some Philistine reading the newspaper you’ve bought over your shoulder on public transport) and Surprise Veganism (slaving over a hot stove cooking a meal for 10 only to find none of your guests can eat anything on the menu).

His survey of writers’ festivals wickedly partitions authors into purveyors of Quick Lit (news-related books published 24 hours after a cataclysmic event), Clit-Lit (erotic fiction aimed at the female market), Sick Lit (crime novels often with a Scandinavian setting featuring ghastly murders), Shtick-Lit (memoirs by comedians featuring their best one-liners), Flick-Lit (picture-filled coffee table fare), Sit-Lit (any book to be read in the loo) and so on.

This is all highly amusing, but Glover delves deeper. He has an uncanny ability to point out home truths, so you reflect on changing social mores, with a smirk on your face. Take his views on today’s increasingly complex menus in fancy restaurants. “Restaurant chefs claim to be obsessed with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, but… everything is presented in little towers, as if the plate were valuable real estate. It’s then splashed with a melange of butter, cream and salt in a way designed to cause a heart attack. The only place you get with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, is at home”.

Yes, yes, Richard, bring it on, carry on exposing the comedy in our ridiculous posturings and pretentions. Can’t wait for your next book.


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10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

Happy New Year everyone and may all the books you read in 2014 be memorable!

As I struggle (despite Melatonin) to overcome jetlag, I am very conscious that I have neglected Books Now! over the last few weeks as I’ve been gallivanting halfway across the world, having a great time, but alas, doing much less reading than I hoped. (NB: it was a very active holiday and after rock climbing, trekking and wild water rafting across Peru and Argentina, I fell into bed exhausted at the end of the day).

So while I shake myself out of apathy, and get ready to pen my first review for 2014, I thought I’d ease back into the blogosphere gently. Here’s a great article written by Emily Temple on writers and writing – enjoy!

“If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own favorite essays on writing to the list in the comments.

barthelme

“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Read it here.

In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

brenheimer

“Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer, from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House. Read it here.

Bernheimer is a constant champion of the fairy tale and its influence on literature at large (not least as editor of The Fairy Tale Review), and a writer we couldn’t do without. This essay unpacks the formal elements of fairy tales, and does a fair bit more than hint at their essentialness to writers of all kinds.

“Fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is… Every writer is like a topsy- turvy doll that on one side is Red Riding Hood and on the other side the Wolf, or on the one side is a Boy and on the other, a Raven and Coffin. The traditional techniques of fairy tales—identifiable, named—are reborn in the different ways we all tell stories.”

miller

“Reflections on Writing,” Henry Miller, from The Wisdom of the Heart. Read a few excerpts here.

A characteristically wonderful exploration of Miller’s own emotional, psychological, and technical struggles with writing.

“I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything; smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.”

frost

“The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost, from Collected Poems. Read it here.

A gorgeous mini-essay from an American giant that is equally relevant to writers of poetry or prose, and is almost a poem itself.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

sontag

“On Style,” Susan Sontag, from Against Interpretation. Read it here.

As much about criticism as it is about writing (and perhaps more), Sontag dissects style versus form versus content versus the conceptions of all these things that we have in our heads.

“In other words, what is inevitable in a work of art is the style. To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage) , what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style. Compare that which is forced, labored, synthetic in the construction of Madame Bovary and of Ulysses with the ease and harmony of such equally ambitious works as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The first two books I have mentioned are great indeed. But the greatest art seems secreted, not constructed.”

eliot

“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot, from The Sacred Wood. Read it here.

Whether or not you subscribe to Eliot’s “impersonal theory” of poetry, or his conception of the artist’s inevitable “self-sacrifice” to the past, there’s no arguing that this essay is a barn-burner.

“If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of “sublimity” misses the mark. For it is not the “greatness,” the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

lethem

“The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.. Read it here.

Here, Lethem discusses not just the shifty concept of plagiarism in fiction, but the anxiety of appropriating pop culture, copyright, Disney, the power of a gift economy, the idea of a “commons of cultural materials,” art of all forms. A must-read for any contemporary creator, especially if you’ve ever nicked a line from a favorite book.

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing”.

vonnegut

“How to Write with Style,” Kurt Vonnegut, from How to Use the Power of the Written Word. Read it here.

Vonnegut is an enduring treasure trove of literary advice — everyone you know has seen this excellent video of the man explaining the shapes of stories — and this little essay is no different: clever, whip-smart, and told with joy.

“Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

orwell

“Why I Write,” George Orwell. Read it here.

It’s hard to put together a list of great essays without including something from Orwell. So why not this one, forever quoted by anyone who has ever tried to write a novel, or wanted to?

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

didion

“On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Read it here.

But of course: the essay that has launched a thousand notebook-keepers.

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”


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FESTIVE FOLLIES and FOND FAREWELLS….

BOOKS NOW! will be going on vacation until mid-January, but I wanted to wish everyone Happy Holidays and a wonderful 2014 before I fly off.

Thank you for supporting this blog and for your interest in all things literary. From humble beginnings in April 2013, Books Now! has grown to a readership of over 400, which is fantastic and very gratifying. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store. In the meantime, here are a few gift ideas if you’re still stuck for the book lovers in your life…..

tshirt

Out of Print is a 27-year-old clothing company that sells t-shirts featuring vintage book covers, from Origin of the Species to Lolita. What makes this company special is that for every t-shirt sold, they donate a book to a community in need.

scent

 In the Library scent (I kid you not…..) The description reads: “In the Library is a warm blend of English Novel, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish.”

board game

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night Board Game. Each card gives you the opening lines to a famous novel, and you must identify the name of the book. It’s suited for all levels of literature lovers.

Book Cake

Book Cake for the sweet toothed.

coaster

Tile Coaster for procrastinators.

And finally……

book thongs

Book thongs/flip-flops –  never go anywhere without taking your books with you.

Be safe and I’ll see you in the New Year…….


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An ever-turning wheel – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

 

 

 

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday     $27.99

Life After Life was published early in the year and is a book I have intended to read for a while. And as we approach the end of 2013, it seems appropriate to review a book which comments on death and rebirth, offering alternate slices of life and a “Sliding Doors” approach to narrative and character. It’s especially meaningful to me, as I’ve just written a play in which six diverse characters confront their mortality and attitudes to death in very different ways.

Most books have a composite set of characters at their centre. And even if the novel progresses through flashbacks, jumbled juxtaposition of time frames or mixed points of view, there is usually some kind of progression in which we view them holistically.

Atkinson turns traditional story-telling on its head. Her heroine Ursula Todd (interestingly, ‘tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’) dies over and over again. First, she’s a baby in 1910, strangled with her mother’s umbilical cord one freezing winter’s night; we then see her as a toddler when she dies again, victim of a freak accident. A few years later Ursula is resurrected, but drowns helplessly on a family seaside trip; she succumbs to the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Other incarnations see her murdered by a psychotic husband and killed in the London blitz of 1942.

Her lives riff and intertwine like musical variations on a theme, and indeed the novel has a jazzy, improvised feel with leitmotifs abounding – many chapters end with the words “darkness fell”. Snow provides the silent background for both death and rebirth.  In one life, the teenage Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant to her brother’s American friend and undergoes a backstreet abortion; yet in another life, a bashful kiss is her only physical interaction. One episode’s full stop is another episode’s near-miss or ellipsis.

In each of her lives Ursula grows a little older, before succumbing to the next, inevitable, conclusion. This drives the novel forward and delivers surprise after surprise. Some are harder to swallow than others –  in one of her many existences, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in Germany and then assassinates Hitler in a Berlin café.  We last see Ursula in the 1960s – as such, the novel sweeps panoramically through much of the 20th century, tackling the shifts of political and social change.

The one stable element is the family home, Fox Corner, an idealised portrait of British upper middle class life. It is a sanctuary, a still point in a turning world that threatens with danger and unpredictability. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread for her early novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum and is well-known for her crime novels, Case Histories, writes with elegance and restraint, capturing the domestic flavours of everyday life as well as the tragedies of war. A poached egg is “a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”. Ursula lives through the London bombings, as a fire warden, and in the morgues is sickened by the “macabre jigsaw” of limbs and torsos, “the crushed fragments of human lives, never to be whole again.” Ursula in each life lived, is also attempting to reach some kind of wholeness.

The alternate endings, both happy and sad, allow the reader to contemplate Ursula’s fate through diversely refracted lights. This is exciting, innovative, and takes storytelling into a fresh medium of possibility.  Less satisfactory is Atkinson’s attempts to explain the rationale for this process. At one point Ursula’s mother, frustrated at her daughter’s strange behaviour and frequent flashes of déjà-vu, trots her off to a psychiatrist, Dr Kellet. Subsequent discussions between doctor and patient about reincarnation, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and whether it’s possible to live your life again and again “until you get it right” appear forced, as if justifying the novel’s structure and narrative drive.

Readers invariably care for the characters they get to know and worry about what happens to them. The question has to be asked whether readers  empathise with a heroine whose life paths constantly morph into different realities. It’s to Kate Atkinson’s credit and a tribute to her skill as a writer that we believe completely in Ursula, life after life.