kate atkinson

    A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Books 2023, 6) 📚

    Atkinson’s Life After Life was the wonderful story of Ursula Todd, who kept repeating her life, dying in different ways each time. One interpretation or explanation for this strange experience is that she was trying to create (or find, or reach) a version of her life in which her beloved brother Teddy survives the Second World War and lives to grow old.

    A God in Ruins is the story of that timeline.

    Or maybe a couple of timelines. While this is in most ways a more straightforward tale than its predecessor, we do see two or three possible different endings for Teddy. It’s also about his descendants: his daughter the infuriating Viola, and her two children. It’s kind of a redemption tale for some characters.

    I enjoyed the bits about Teddy’s wartime expreiences as a bomber pilot most. Overall it’s not as good as Life After Life, but not bad.

    Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (books 2015, 3)

    This is all very meta. It's a story within a story, with at least one other story within that (the last of which is not very relevant). And the two main ones are more intertwined, rather than one enclosing the other, with typefaces used to distinguish them.

    The largest story is that of a young woman during her time at Dundee University – in fact really just a few days in one term thereat. She’s a bit of a drip, just drifting along letting stuff happen to her – including repeatedly getting into a car with an unknown strange man who claims to be a private detective.

    But the same time she (and I can’t remember her name, which can be a problem with first-person characters, because how often do you use your own name?) is holding an extended conversation with her mother (who, we’re repeatedly told, is not her mother) on a remote Scottish island whereon they are the only residents. She is trying to get her mother to tell her story. The mother is not keen to do so.

    The slice-of-student-life in seventies Dundee is interesting enough. I’ve never been to Dundee, but I was a student in Edinburgh in the eighties, and it doesn’t sound all that different. Indeed, that story could be enough to carry a novel, if you had a slightly more active protagonist, and more of a plot.

    The plot, such as it is, is in the island story. Well, the mystery is mainly told there, let’s say.

    I enjoyed it all well enough while I was reading it, but can’t help but wonder what it’s really for. That’s not something I would normally ask of a novel – they are their own justification, generally; they exist to tell their story, and that’s all you need. But here, well… there isn’t quite enough of a story. It describes itself – within the island story, of the Dundee story; that’s part of the metaness – as a “comic novel”. And yes, there’s humour in the university story, and maybe beyond. But it ’s not exactly funny, you know?

    And the last section is a detective story that the protagonist of the Dundee story is writing. But it doesn’t really relate to either of the other stories – except maybe by some imagery – and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I don’t really see why it’s there.

    When I read Atkinson’s debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I likened it to The Crow Road. Sadly, this doesn’t live up to that promise. Luckily she went on to write Life After Life, which as you’ll recall, I loved.

    The First Three Books of the Year

    The first three books of 2014 were:

    The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

    Gaiman’s fantasy inspired by his own childhood experiences is fun. It is short, however, and strangely unmemorable after just a couple of months.

    It by Stephen King

    I read some King when I was younger, but hadn’t in several years apart from On Writing, until a couple of years ago when my beloved gave me 11.22.63, his time-travel fantasy about going back to save JFK. I throughly enjoyed that, and was reminded that he had a vast back-catalogue that I could catch up on.

    A significant portion of that catalogue is contained in the single volume of It. It is a monolith, a vast behemoth of a book, at around 1300 pages.

    It’s good, though, and I shouldn’t fixate on its size. King uses the space to let his characters breathe and grow. They have the strange limitation as adults that they have almost totally forgotten their childhoods, as a direct result of their encounter with the titular creature. Though not, as you might suppose, because they were traumatised. Rather it seems to be a feature of interacting with the supernatural entity that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, in the primary guise of a scary clown, that, if you face it and live (few do) you forget the encounter.

    I had met Derry before: in 11.22.63 the protagonist spends some time in this strange town, and the effect in the book was so jarring – it felt obvious that here was a place with a history – that I looked it up. Turns out he’s used the fictional town as the setting for several stories (and presumably couldn’t resist routing his time-traveller through it).

    Anyway, getting back to the book at hand: I spent weeks embroiled in King’s small-town America, its characters and its horrors. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, but am in no hurry to go back there soon.

    Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

    Wow. Just wow. This is an awesome book. Atkinson manages to tell the same woman’s life story again and again and keep it interesting and gripping every time (well, there’s a slight longueur during a German period in one iteration, but the undercurrent of terror – she is living in the Führer’s holiday home – keeps it from being a problem).

    As you probably know, it’s the tale of a woman who was born in 1910 and died – at various times, and in various ways. We are told the story of her life as she repeats it, again and again – or through multiple parallel timestreams. As the iterations go on, she starts to have some awareness of her past lives. She doesn’t understand what they are at first, of course, especially as a child. At first she’ll just have a sense of dread as she nears an event that killed her before. Later they are clearer memories of the future.

    It is utterly fascinating and a joy. And not SF, though if I had read it soon enough I’d have nominated it for the BSFA Award.

    I read Kate Atkinson’s first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, years ago, and likened it to Iain Banks’s The Crow Road (hard to to think of higher praise). I read one other, but wasn’t so impressed, and rather lost track of her, apart from watching the TV adaptations of her detective stories. I think maybe I need to go back and catch up on her work.