Tag Archives: Kate Atkinson

Turn Our Captivity, O Lord

This comes from Psalm 126. Some may think this oddly inappropriate? But here goes…

The GFSSimon Mawer has followed up his Second World War Resistance novel, with a new book about the same woman. In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky we follow the wartime exploits Marian Sutro, part English and part French who is recruited to the SOE, though most of the time she seems too naive to have worked that out. She has some well trodden fictional paths to follow and one extremely unusual one, she is recruited by a rival secret operation to persuade a one-time friend to leave France and come to England.

It is this adventure that makes this an interesting novel. The Resistance work, the drop over France, the clandestine meetings and messages are covered elsewhere, not better probably but more of the same. Marian’s other adventure and her time in Paris doing it, is both more exciting, more edge of the seat and slightly less likely, but nevertheless gripping stuff.

As with all his books, Simon Mawer keeps his hand well hidden and the gradual reveal is all the more telling with the final shocking denouement. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky does not match his previous hauntingly beautiful book The Glass Room about an architect’s dream project in Germany and the people who lived there, but it is a page turner.

The new novel, Tightrope, Tightropereaches another level all together. Once again, Marian Sutro is our heroine, this is her life after the war. She is trying to settle down, she is trying to forget and she has drifted into an unsuitable marriage. Unsuitable because she is much cleverer than her husband, she married on the rebound and anyway life in peacetime simply is not as vivid, nerve-stretching or interesting as her time in the front line. How could it be? In a book like this? Very interesting indeed.

These are both very unusual novels, but exploring the life after seems to be a richer seam, partly because it is a road less travelled – though one that is being travelled more and more frequently by others, Kate Atkinson for example, but also Sebastian Faulks.

Wolf BorderThe other book that I read along the same lines is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall.  What?! I hear you cry…bear with me.

The heroine of this book, Rachel Caine, is also recruited, this time by a wealthy landowning aristocrat, Earl of Annerdale, with a plan.  He wants, as one of his playthings, a pair of wolves and as she has worked on an American reservation protecting wolves there, she seems the best target for his operation.

At first reluctant, Rachel then finds herself in an awkward situation and so opts out of the wild wolf project to start a captivity project for a pair of Grey Wolves, to be imported according to all the strictest laws and restrictions. from Europe.  This beautiful pair, who will live, she supposes, on the Earl’s estate (which seems limitless) in a magnificently, expensively constructed enclosure with every modern security system available. are an experiment in controlled reintroduction .

Apart from some serious animal rights protest, some anxious neighbours and some angry farmers, what could possibly go wrong?  The Earl is boundless in his enthusiasm, then seems to lose interest; his daughter uses this as her gap year project, about which Rachel has serious misgivings, but is won over; apart from one break in, luckily before the pair are released from their quarantine enclosure, everything goes like clockwork.

The pair are released after being carefully monitored and having GPS chips inserted under their coats.  A wild-life photographer sets up his hides and all is set.  Wonderfully, the pair like each other and in the absence of any alpha-females, they breed successfully in the first spring, producing four beautiful wolf-cubs…Rachel, who has also been breeding, could not be happier.

This all sounds very fanciful. Actually, it is as much about family life as about the wild. The manifest tensions around sibling rivalry and how it can be resolved, its causes and the lasting damage.  Rachel has been away for years, estranged from her rackety mother and distant from her brother, returning to England she is able to resolve some of these issues.  The Earl. too, has parental problems resulting from an accident in a plane which caused the death of his wife.  This does not seem to have prevented him from flying, however but has caused near-permanent estrangement from his son, who will eventually inherit, though the daughter seems to care more about the land and its attendant responsibilities.

Sarah Hall has a good eye for landscape and she is in familiar territory here as most of the action takes place in and around the Lake District.  Previous books have been selected by the Man Booker judges for the Shortlist, but she has yet to win.

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White Poppy – Black Mud = Pipe Dreams

What happened to our memory of history? How many people presently reading Amitav Ghosh‘s magnificently detailed and peopled trilogy covering the beginnings of the opium industry knew how deeply mired in the filth of coercion, bribery and corruption lay British Capitalism? FIFA is nothing, a mere pinprick compared to this.

scan0004Beginning with A Sea of Poppies, which covers the industry from the Indian end, we meet Deeti. She is a young married woman, her husband – partially lamed during combat in some war or other – works in an opium factory packing processed opium for export.  Deeti grows and harvests opium, like many other farmers, coerced into the crop by bribery, trickery or desperation.

In the old days, farmers would keep a little of their home-made opium for their families, to be used during illnesses, or at harvests and weddings; the rest they would sell to the local nobility, or to pykari merchants from Patna. Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little over, to be sold…
…those toothsome winter crops [wheat,dal,vegetables] were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asámi contracts. It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn’t accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commissions on the opium and would never let you off.

Eventually there is a turn in Deeti’s fortune and her adventures through the several books begin. It begins with her vision of a ship. The ship exists, it is the Ibis.

The Ibis has sailed from Baltimore, by the time it arrives in India, Zachary Reid is second mate, having joined the ship as ship’s carpenter. This has been a slaving vessel, but once she arrives in India she has been refitted to ship girmitiyas (indentured workers – a euphemism for slaves) to Mauritius and opium destined for China. When she finally sails, on board are several other main characters in this trilogy but I am avoiding plot spoilers here so I will not list them; suffice it to say they comprise the characters that we will meet during the narrative and whose careers (or careerings) we will follow, in River of Smoke and then Flood of Fire.scan0005

There is something else that I want to say about this completely engrossing narrative. Amitav Ghosh makes no concessions to the reader’s ignorance of certain vocabulary, there is no glossary but the whole text is littered with “foreign” words and phrases. Here are a few examples: bojha = bundle, munshi = secretary, gomusta = general manager (of home, office or factory). These are picked at random, there are many more and once we arrive in China – more still. Personally, I am glad that there is no way of looking every word up, it makes one concentrate on the sense and then by the second or third reading, you know exactly what is meant. Any one who arrives at the end of the trilogy without a sense of what any of these words means simply hasn’t been paying enough attention.

One of the features that has appeared in the reviews of Flood of Fire, the most recent volume, is an immense admiration for the humour. In spite of the fact that the background to this story is dark, there was nothing remotely romantic or pretty about the trade in opium, especially once it was being traded in China, at the same time Amitav Ghosh gets quite a lot of fun out of the preposterous hypocrisy of the British and Anglo-Indian “aristocracy” in India. There is a perfectly marvellous amount of adultery, of mixed race sex and denial. Mr Seth Bahram, an exceedingly rich (and ruthless) trader, has important family connections in India but also has a liaison, and a son, in China. Another character, Zadig Bey has a family in Egypt but has abandoned them for his second, illegitimate, family. His justification being that his Egyptian family are surrounded by relatives and will be cared for, his illegitimate family will have no such support and will be outcasts.

Mrs Burnham, the English wife of Benjamin Burnham, another trader, being left alone for months at a time eventually falls into the same trap – the scenes between her and her singularly inappropriate lover are quite brilliant: funny, touching and full of the most vivid and ripe euphemisms: “Oh look! I see a helmet! A brave little havildar has climbed up my chest and is raising his head above the nullah, to take a dekko!” I am not going to explain…the episode of cunnilingus later is liberally scattered with bizarre vocabulary, and as for the prophylactic!!! But, at the same time, in case of mistakes in public the two lovers continue to address each other very formally – Mr and Mrs!

If you imagine a figure of eight, made up of stranded cotton with India at the outermost curve on one side and China at the outermost point at the other and Ibis at the crossover, you will get the faintest grasp of the complexity of this historical fiction, the background of which is the Opium Industry.

I believe that the original plan was to cover the story right up to the modern era, but the first three volumes have only got us to the First Opium War (1841), the war dragged on for another eighteen months after the ending of Flood of Fire finally concluding with the Treaty of Nanking (1842) which officially recognised the formal ceding of Hong Kong as a separate trading area open to foreign trade. Amitav Ghosh has admitted that he may not complete this work, but I do earnestly hope that there will be at least one further volume.

There is no glossary, as I said before, but an eye-watering bibliography. This is historical fiction of the best kind – properly researched. If you have not started, please be inspired to start now.

The Man Booker postscript: I am pretty sure Kate Atkinson will be on this listscan0008. A God in Ruins is the follow up to her prize winning novel Life After Lifescan0009.

I would also like to see The Mountain Can Wait there too.scan0006

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surprisingly not Man Booker – Atkinson & Hosseini

I think I am not the only person to be surprised that Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life after Life is not on the Man Booker Longlist. I would need to check, has she ever been on a longlist? If not – why not? Ever since her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum was published she has consistently produced first class novels, stories that have a singularity that makes each one a delight and also a new discovery. Some authors write the same sort of book each time, this is not a snide remark it is merely an observation, but Kate Atkinson writes a different book each time and the new one is, in my view, one of the best.

The principal character, Ursula, starts as a new born baby, she is born in February 1910 on a snowy night, the midwife is stuck somewhere (actually an inn) and Dr Fellowes is on his way, but slowly; thus in the first chapter of section two Bridget is alone with the mother Sylvie, the baby arrives choked by the cord around its neck and fails to breathe. But immediately we start again, the Doctor arrives just in time to cut the cord and the baby lives to be christened: Ursula. Right at the end of the book we revisit this scene and this time Sylvie arouses herself enough to get Bridget to find some handy surgical scissors in a drawer, so she cuts the cord and the baby lives.
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This continues throughout the book. Death, though never actually named comes in the form of a dark bat, darkness, falling but never actually death, and Ursula gets to live again a different life, but always even as a child with a nagging sense of déjà vu. Each manifestation follows her through to its conclusion and then darkness falls…

This is either a profound meditation on dying and on reincarnation, though not in the Hindu/Buddhist sense for Ursula comes back each time as Ursula and gets to relive her own life but differently, or simply a rattlingly good story. The magic lies in the characterisation of this girl as she develops into a young woman; some of the awful things that happen to her are balanced by better or worse luck next time. Her character and that of her mother, brothers, her Aunt Izzie and her friends remain consistent, and each new manifestation recalibrates them to the new situation without actually altering their nature. It is quite brilliant.

Kate Atkinson writes with a quiet precision, her pen is scalpel sharp and her characters are fully rounded. This story takes us from 1910 all the way through the Second World War to its end and slightly beyond; Ursula is variously married, single, a mother, a spinster; she lives in London, Germany, visits Italy and France; survives and does not survive the Blitz and all of it is well researched; accurate and sometimes devastatingly sad and at other times gently contented and yet…sometimes, just every now and then, the curtain parts and Ursula gets another moment, she sees beyond the ‘now’ into the past or future, it is very unnerving.

scan0009The main thread that we follow through the character, Pari, in the second book, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, also has a sense of the past seeping into the present. Pari and her elder brother Abdullah live in Afghanistan in a small village called Shadbagh. They are dirt poor, Pari’s birth ended her mother’s life and the two children now have a stepmother Parvana. She continues to have children, so her brother, Uncle Nabi seeks a way to relieve his new brother-in-law of his financial embarrassment. He works with a wealthy, but childless, couple Mr and Mrs Wahdati in Kabul and his solution impacts on Abdullah and Pari with heart-breaking suddenness…it takes the whole of the rest of the novel to reach a resolution of a kind.

Khaled Hosseini writes about Afghanistan in such a way that one really longs to go there, place is as much a character in his books as the story; the crowded bazaars, the dusty adobe villages, the heat and the mountains and the stories. And the Mountains Echoed starts with the father telling his children a story, full of divs and jinns. The father in the story has many children, but of them all the youngest, little Qais is the favourite but of course that is the very child that the bad div wishes to take with him to the mountain; and in order to save the rest of his children, the father has to sacrifice one. And we have no idea what is coming…but by the end of the next chapter we know exactly why this was the story for that night.

All the characters have a back story which we get to understand: Parwana’s is gut-wrenching and once we discover it, so is Mrs Wahdati’s. So like the unwrapping of a weighty parcel, we find layer upon layer of truth, half-truth and downright falsehood. Hosseini uses the device of a long letter from Uncle Nabi to a Mr Markos to help us follow the rest of the narrative, times have changed and a Cypriot surgeon has come to Afghanistan to live in the Wahdati house; they have both departed and Uncle Nabi, the faithful cook/chauffeur has been left the house in its entirety…

I unreservedly recommend both these books, and all the others by both these authors if you haven’t already discovered them.

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