Monday, 22 June 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins is an intense, powerful novel written by quite possibly my favourite author writing today. The title is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote 'A man is a god in ruins ...' and the man at the heart of this book is Teddy Todd, the brother of Ursula, the central character of Atkinson's previous novel, Life After Life. While the earlier book describes Ursula's war, and particularly the Blitz, Teddy's war makes him a Squadron Leader flying Halifax bombers as part of Bomber Harris's campaign to bring Germany to its knees.
    While Teddy's war in the Air Force is a central part of the novel, we get a lot more of his life too: his childhood at Fox Corner, his boyhood devotion to Nancy next door, who becomes his wife after the war, and their life together. The story cuts from early years about Teddy to later years when he is very old from the point of view of several other characters, such as his grandchildren, poor mixed up Sunny who can never please his mother, and sensible Bertie who refused to be called by her first name, Moon, taking her middle name of Roberta instead. You can tell her parents were living on a commune when she was born.
    Atkinson is really good at ghastly characters and who could be more unsympathetic than Teddy and Nancy's daughter, Viola (surely she should be called Vile for short). But she's also complex and interesting and there is a very good reason for her inability to find love in her life or please the reader. This reason is complex and to do with the death of her mother, and the reader will have to wait until the end of the book to truly understand her.
    Teddy is a masterstroke of a character however, because he contrives to be immensely sympathetic,  as well as multi-faceted. He strives always to do the right thing - part of a pact he made with God for surviving the war, when the attrition rate for bomber crews was horrendous. His goodness doesn't make him boring, as he is often hamstrung by decision making and doesn't quite understand the people closest to him when he needs to. He has a comfortable marriage but at times it's a lonely one - his wife and daughter so close to each other he can sometimes feel a bit left out.
    But the heart of the novel is Teddy's war. Atkinson has done a ton of research to capture the scenes of the bombing raids Teddy and crew undertake. There are the characters of the different men and their roles - the navigator, the gunners, the wireless operator and bomb aimer - their quirks and personalities and what happens to each of them during the different missions. It is all vividly brought to life with nail-biting action. You feel for each loss as various men are killed while Teddy survives and you sympathise with his grief.
    And if that wasn't enough, there is Atkinson's marvellous prose - her writing is always witty and sharp and there is never a dull sentence, never any padding. The book is another triumph, and surely a contender among the literary awards for 2015.

Friday, 19 June 2015

In a Real Life by Chris Killen

In a Real Life is the story of three characters, Lauren, Paul and Ian over two time periods: 2004 and 2014. The novel cuts back and forth between these two critical years, using a lively mix of alternating view points, past and present tense and first and third person narration. The chapters are short so in no time you are swept into the novel which opens with the break-up of Paul and Lauren This happens when Lauren goes to bed having left a list of PRO's and CON's about Paul on the living room table, which of course he happens to see when he comes home from his bar job.
    His bar job is one of the CON's - there are seven in total - while there is only one PRO: that he would never cheat on her. Fast forward to 2014 and there's Paul, having published a novel, teaching creative writing, so no longer working in a bar, but contemplating infidelity with a nineteen year old student, which means he seems to have swapped around some of his good points and bad points.
    Lauren goes off to Canada on the spur of the moment, but begins an email correspondence with Ian, Paul's flatmate. Ian is in the music industry, playing in a band, writing songs, but by 2014 he has lost his job in a record store and has to move in with his more successful sister, Carol. It's a crumby box room and he has to sell his guitar to pay his board. He's also lost touch with Lauren, after a stream of emails that promised more than friendship. All three characters seem to have lost touch, in fact.
    By 2014 Lauren is working in a charity shop, still looking for Mr Right with little hope of finding him. The course of the novel fills in a few of the gaps: what caused the falling out between Lauren and Ian for starters. We have sympathy for Ian in particular: he seems a nice guy but his life has struck rock bottom, Lauren has a knack for getting into situations with men without really thinking them through, while Paul seems to be acting out a role in 'Men Behaving Badly'. It is a toss-up who is worse, Paul or Carol's boyfriend, Martin who gives Ian a job in telemarketing. This is a particularly unpleasant industry and it says a lot for Ian that he is so bad at it.
    The novel highlights the way we communicate/fail to communicate using social media and the Internet, and is an interesting snapshot of Generation Y. There is plenty of humour in the little messes each character gets into, although at times this made me cringe, particularly Paul's hopeless acts of deceit towards his girlfriend, his younger lover, his boss and even his publisher. And surely characters like Paul and Ian should steer clear of Facebook or at least should think rather than drink before posting a status.
    What kept me going with the story was the obvious 'unfinished business' between Ian and Lauren that lurks in the background. Paul shows a willingness to make amends to all and sundry, but seems to be hellbent on picking up more bad points than before. In Paul, Killen has created a classic example of literary pretentiousness reminding me somehow of that Groucho Marx saying: 'Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book - and does.' I am glad however that Chris Killen wrote this book - it is so refreshingly honest and good fun.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd's first foray into mystery fiction inspired by nineteenth century literature reads very like a Jane Austen novel. One of the first things you notice is the pains she has taken to sprinkle through the book occasional outmoded usages - words such as sopha (sofa) and twelvemonth (a year), to name but two. The first half of the book is a bit like a reworking of Austen's Mansfield Park, with an overhaul of the characters.
    Most notable of these is Fanny Price, whom Kingsley Amis described as 'a monster of complacency and pride, who under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel'. Here Fanny is an heiress, with an immense fortune when she comes of age and her pick of suitors. You would think this would make her happy. She's nice looking, has nice things to wear and balls to go to, but all that entitlement seems to have turned her into quite the calculating shrew.
    Fanny's aunt, Mrs Norris, has pushed forward her stepson, Edmund, as Fanny's suitor and the two are informally engaged, but neither seem terribly happy about that. Mrs Norris is snooty or fawning depending on who she is talking to, and the Bertrams whose seat is Mansfield Park are pleasant but not very smart. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram think Fanny demure and generally lovely, but when Mr Rushworth, a character for whom the term popinjay seems to have been invented, starts paying court to Fanny, her true colours begin to emerge.
    Much of the story is told from the point of view of Mary Crawford, who is staying with her sister, the vicar's wife, along with her brother, Henry, who has been contracted by Sir Thomas to redesign the gardens of Mansfield Park. Mary is attractive, kindly and sensible in equal proportions and soon makes friends with young Julia Bertram while catching the eye of Edmund.
    The novel could quite happily carry along in this vein, a comedy of manners with a bit of social commentary and romance on the side. There's plenty of goings on and intrigue when it comes to who might marry whom. But in the middle of the book Shepherd throws in a murder and the novel takes a darker turn. The Bertrams engage the services of 'thief-taker' Charles Maddox, who you might recall is the uncle of Shepherd's private investigator from her later books, also a Charles Maddox. The older Maddox is uncompromising, stopping at nothing to get to the truth, and suddenly the book has a distinctly different tone.
    Murder at Mansfield Park is another terrific read from Lynn Shepherd - well researched and cleverly plotted. Her characters are multidimensional too. There's nothing like throwing a murder at them to see who shines and who turns into a quivering mess. But what I like best about her books is Shepherd's impeccable writing which so perfectly captures a sense of period, plus a wry Jane Austen humour. She writes the kind of book that is both a lot of fun and remarkably intelligent - is that why so many literary authors are turning to mystery writing?