Hazel McHaffie

Blitz

Life after Life

A bonus of lockdown was acquiring ‘new’ books from those donated to our outdoor bookshelf. One such was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, about which I’d seen and read excellent reports. (I’m horrified to discover it’s eight years since it came out, and I’m only now getting round to reading it! Too many books, not enough hours in the day.) But somehow, living in this parallel universe of pandemic for the last eighteen months has made Atkinson’s premise – What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? – even more pertinent; so perhaps after all it’s a good time to read it.

The hook on the back cover is tantalising:
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?

An ingenious premise upon which to build a novel, huh? And it challenges us to think, What would I do differently, given the opportunity? Would I even want to change things?

Add to that the time period of the story – 1910-1967 – including two great wars, and the implications of a second chance assume even more momentous proportions.
What if a pretty English girl had shot Adolf Hitler in November 1930?
What if a pretty British girl was actually living in Germany when war was declared?
The historic detail relating to big events gives a solid skeleton to this story, but inevitably some factual accuracy is forfeited in the name of literature, as the author herself acknowledges: To find the truth as the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the way.

Ursula Todd, born in 1910, is a strange child with odd ‘powers’. Was it reincarnation, or clairvoyance, or deja vu, or living in a parallel universe, sixth sense, or what? Certainly her mother thinks she needs ‘fixing’. A Harley Street psychiatrist does his best when she’s 10, but as she grows up, and bad things happen to her, Ursula persists in wondering if death is the answer; she can then have another stab at life and hopefully a happier ending.

We follow her different lives through her rural upbringing with an indulgent father and a superior mother, adult life in London, during the Blitz, and in post-war Berlin. She goes from knowing child, to rape victim, abused wife, assassin, mistress, rescue warden. Back and forth. At times she doesn’t even recognise herself.

It was, I must admit somewhat discombobulating to live through a traumatic experience of the death of a child or young person, only to have them return later in the book very much alive because an alternative version of their lives is being narrated. Short of cataloguing each iteration, I couldn’t hold them all in my head, so went for simply enjoying the moment.

Something of the challenge underpinning this story is captured in these few lines of dialogue about half way through the book:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’  Ursula said. ‘If one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
   ‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph asked mildly.
   ‘Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.’
   ‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood?’

For me this book came into its own in the section A Long Hard War, where Ursula is a warden dealing with the aftermath of the bombings in London. It poignantly captures the fragility of life, the human tragedy on both sides, the courage and stamina people can find within them, and the importance of small things.

When asked what the book is about, Atkinson says, It’s about being English. That’s not what I took from it. For me it’s about something much more complex; an unravelling of our multi-layered selves, who we are in our imaginations as well as in different circumstances. And how our destiny can be determined by an accident of birth, or a chance conversation, or a seemingly casual encounter or decision. I’m still mulling over all that … and isn’t that one measure of a successful story?

 

 

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When reading’s a struggle …

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
So said Somerset Maugham. But this week I’ve certainly identified a few that aren’t on the list!

Now for something completely different … : that was my approach in selecting Caught by Henry Green from my shelves. No opportunity for growth if we stay within our comfort zones, huh?

Published in 1943, this was Green’s fourth of ten novels. Did you know he was a contemporary of George Orwell? Me neither. But we studied him at school, so I have a context. Furthermore Green was born on the same date in October as me, and grew up in the south west like me … OK, I’m starting to get interested …

During World War II he served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and it’s this personal experience that’s echoed in Caught. Should have depth and insight into life during the Blitz, at least. He had very definite opinions of what writing should be: Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations … It should slowly appeal to fears unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone. Okkkaaaaay …

What’s more significant, perhaps, is that this author is sufficiently rated to have scholars analysing and teaching his work, so I ought to know something about him. But … oh dear, I laboured with this one – which might say more about me than him, of course. And in his defence, I should say, there were occasional flashes of insight and humour that appealed!

The story’s written in the rather stilted short sentences of a different era, with an omniscient narrator, and sudden switches between people and places without a pause, which for me sit uncomfortably today with so much emphasis on consistent point of view.  As does the relentless strong dialect with little discernible difference between characters – even a Welshman has a cockney accent! The rhyming cockney slang strewn through the text stopped me dead in my tracks to decipher it too, necessitating going back to re-read that section each time.

The setting is largely a London fire station during the war – promising a different angle of fighting fires in the Blitz, I thought, but no, it’s the minutiae of everyday life during months and months of inactivity, and the humdrum lives of ordinary people, rather than the war, that Green aims to capture. As a professor of English at Oxford says in his introduction to the book: if at times the novel reads like Eastenders, that is partly what he was aiming for. You have been warned!

Given the sheer banality, it’s surprisingly hard to summarise the plot, but I’ll give it a whirl. When war breaks out, Richard Roe, a well-to-do widower with a 5 year old son, Christopher, decides the boy should stay with his grandparents, aunts and cousin in the country, but his own duty is to return to London and join the Fire Service as an Auxiliary. Christopher has a nurse, and a nanny, he’s surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege, and is being raised a gentleman (like Green himself). Returning to his parents’ house periodically to see his son, Roe is haunted by the memories of his own childhood and more poignantly of his deceased wife. But he and his son become remote, and Roe feels only irritation when he hears the boy has been abducted by a woman in a store. However, an awkwardness arises at work when the woman turns out to be the disturbed sister of the professional fire officer responsible for training Roe, one Pye. She has ‘some kink, or misfortune‘, as Pye puts it, which makes her not quite right in the head.

Pye himself cuts a sorry figure. Internally he has tortured memories of an adolescent inadvertent act of incest against his sister, and is wracked with guilt that Amy is now in an asylum. He rarely visits, and he refuses to pay anything towards her care. In his role in the fire service, Pye is inept as a manager, unpopular with his team, proving himself time and again singularly unfit for his role, suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of his superiors. His attitude to women is crude, and he’s summarily ditched by the girl, Prudence, with whom he’s having an affair. He remains unmarried and childless, which is partly why his befriending a boy he finds in the street, taking him back to sleep in his room, is fatally misinterpreted, and drives him to suicide.

Though beneath Pye in rank, the widowed and well-heeled Roe is more successful. He manages to sustain a relationship with WAF driver, Hilly, and curries favour with his fellow firemen by spreading gossip, always on the lookout for self advantage – he loved himself so well that he was afraid. By the end of the book, he has been invalided out of the war into the country, suffering from nervous debility, shocked and exhausted by nine continuous weeks of fire fighting when the Blitz finally materialises. Back with his family, he recovers, but remains self obsessed and needy, leaving the care of his rather brutalised son to his long-suffering sister-in-law.

Happily it’s a slim volume! It will not return to my shelves amongst treasured possessions.

 

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