Tag Archives: Second World War

Reading Australia 2

If you read my posts at all regularly, you will know that I have an unbridled passion for Australia: its land – which I consider God’s Own Country; its history – which makes me want to weep; and its culture – in which I include novels by English and Australian authors as well as everything else: film, painting and all things man-made.

My great hero in the writing world is Thomas Keneally. His output is prodigious and unfailingly interesting, gripping even, and apart from once straying into foreign fields, seems always to have a tenuous link to his own country.

KeneallyCrimes of the Fathers, his latest novel, is no exception. The fathers in question are priests and the crimes are all too awful and apparent. Being of Irish-Catholic extraction himself, Thomas Keneally knows at first hand about the rituals and confessionals of the Catholic faith,

In this novel, he is both channelling the good priests and chastising the bad ones. He obviously knows whereof he writes, which is not to say at all or even to suggest that he was himself a victim of child abuse, but who nowadays can honestly say that they know nothing about it. He was himself training for the priesthood but recognised, in time, that it was not the place for him.

We are all aware now that abuse exists throughout society, in almost every conceivable walk of life where children and young people are vulnerable to approaches of an abusive nature by a responsible adult behaving irresponsibly.

The protagonist in this novel, Father Docherty, has returned from Canada to his home turf, Sydney, to give a lecture in an archdiocese from which he was expelled some years earlier. His topic is child abuse: its foundations and the Church’s response, which to say the least, has been inadequate.

In this searing, insightful account as exemplified by the narrative, Thomas Keneally exposes a wearisome conundrum. As an ex-seminarian, he knows at first hand how the training and practices of the Catholic priesthood – celibacy and the confessional – can lead inexorably to corruption and abuse in the hands of a few emotionally stunted men; a situation that leads them into sexually abusing young men and women, exposure following them in secret, but not public censure; the Church hierarchy moving them on, often to repeat their offences; shielded by a system whose fear of scandal, and worse, whose fear of being undermined allowed the top people, all of them men, to cover up a practice that should have been rooted out and exposed and dealt with long ago.

Only the threat of national media exposure has changed everything, and this novel shows both the damage and the insidious cancer, to both victim and the Church that this avoidance of acknowledgement has caused.

RhoadesA second Australian novel The Woolgrower’s Companion is a book of a different order of narrative. The chapter headings all start with a quotation from the The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906, this is a double bluff, no such book or pamphlet exists. But it is a deceit which adumbrates the many different deceits inherent in this story. Joy Rhoades‘ novel is a heartbreaker.

I mentioned in a previous post the treatment of the Aboriginal People, I forgot to mention the equally appalling treatment of half-caste children, these were unfathomably always taken from their mothers and brought up, trained and sent out into service – generally into the service of white farmers, the very colonials who had often abused their kind.  Orphans were also treated this way and always sent to places far from their origins so that they could not go walkabout and find their own people.

Set in 1945 Longhope, New South Wales, the family in this narrative, the Stimsons, were on the surface wealthy landowners. The book opens with Ralph and his married daughter Kate Dowd, waiting at the local station for the arrival of Italian prisoners of war who were detailed to help on the farms in the absence of the young men still fighting.

Kate Dowd and her father live on a large sheep farm in New South Wales, a farm that Ralph had extended from a Soldiers’ Settlement after the First World War. This was a scheme parcelling out of plots of land for returning servicemen; some thrived and some failed and in Stimson’s case he was a thriver, and had bought up his neighbour’s plots as they went under, not without some chicanery on his side.

As well as the POWs, they have picked up a young boy, Harry, the nephew of their overseer, Grimes.

There are, on the farm, Grimes and another hand, Ed (who is possibly of Aboriginal descent) and two Aboriginal People and the two POW’s. Ralph Stimson the owner, his daughter Kate and an Aboriginal girl, Daisy, a half-caste from the local Domestic Training Home live in the house.

The whole area though is suffering from extreme drought, so all farming is on the knife edge of disaster, Amiens (the name given to this farm) has a dammed reservoir (an advantage not unconnected with the failure of his neighbour’s enterprises), but the water level is getting dangerously low.

This combination of adverse weather conditions and a small team make for intense relationships, each person relying on another to make things work. Ralph, however, has been slipping into a state of absent-mindedness and erratic bursts of fury, brought on partly by the death of his wife and partly as a result of his experiences in the First World War. So Grimes, and eventually Kate, are having to manage the farm, knowing all the time that soon the Second World War will end, their men will return and the Italians will go.

As I indicated earlier, this is a novel full of deceptions and one by one, they reveal themselves, with devastating consequences.

Taut, evocative writing – suspenseful and poignant – this is a story of universal appeal.


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A life in paints

Two unexpected coincidences. I read a beautiful memoir by Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine and then visited Tate Britain to see the new exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash.

war-and-turpentineThe book is a memory of his grandfather, a man that always seemed to be painting copies of the great masters. Shortly before his death Urbain gives his grandson a set of notebooks, though it is many years before he actually reads them.

They are the notebooks that describe in accurate and appalling detail his war service in Belgium during World War 1. Slowly a picture emerges of a young man, fighting a hopeless, chaotic and bloody war against a stronger and more ruthless enemy. Such actions that Urbain witnessed were unparalleled in savagery, such that he could not mention them again. So he painted, again and again simple, peaceful landscapes, mostly devoid of people, or many and detailed copies of famous grand masters, Rembrandt, Velásquez and others.

Hertmans, once he gets around to looking at the notebooks, begins to uncover a life filled with loss, horror and sadness, but it is through discovering this that he finally begins to understand his grandfather.

He comes upon him one day, weeping over a copy of Diego VelásquezThe Toilet of Venus [more commonly called The Rokeby Venus now in the National Gallery]. What was it about this particular painting that could evoke a memory so painful that a grown man should weep? Towards the end of his journey through his grandfather’s life, looking again, finally – properly – at his paintings, he sees something that reveals the man.

This book is a tour de force, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge, as the author physically traces the steps of his grandfather, taking stock of places named in the notebooks, going to the places and looking, trying to imagine what his grandfather saw, probably through the target lens of a rifle or his binoculars, brings him to a place where he begins to understand the warrior, but it is something quite other that draws him towards the appreciation of the man.

This discovery also reveals the nature of his grandparents marriage, how it came about and its consequences, both for his grandparents and for his family.

A telling, subtle and rewarding book. A look into the past, seen through the lens of the gun and of the painter, a painter who never in all his life painted a single picture of the war.

nashThe exhibition at Tate Britain similarly tells the story of a painter, starting from his 20’s and passing through all the stages of his painting and development through to the final year of his life.

Paul Nash developed different styles of painting, from exquisitely detailed pieces in monochrome, showing a sensitive artistry and graphic skill, wood engravings, calligraphy and book illustration, (poetry even) right through British Surrealism and Expressionism to abstraction and finally back to landscape.

In all this, Nash changed styles, media and colour. His early works, often including trees and birds showed a definite mind-set, were frequently monochromatic and often studies of the same view, accurately, stylised or abstracted. At the bottom of some fields near his family home, for example, there were three elm trees. These appear often, sometimes in daylight, more often in moonlight, occasionally in silhouette, vastly out of scale with the landscape in which they are placed. All the more poignant because they have virtually disappeared from the English landscape.

This period was interrupted by the First World War. Paul Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles. He was in active service on the front line trenches in France. Sadly, at a time when he was convalescing after an accident in which he broke a rib his battalion, stationed on Hill 60, received a devastating and fatal attack and nearly everyone was killed. Nash’s paintings of that time, some of them the best known of all his work, were made later on and were a memorial to his lost comrades.   Paintings of the view from the trench, blasted trees standing in a sea of mud, and views of the trench showing soldiers on duty, many of these pictures show no man’s land at night, lit by flares and starlight in eerie and horrible ghastliness. A single monochrome work, shows unusually, the aftermath of the bombardment with dead bodies, barbed wire and chaos.

From there he moved towards painting interiors, generally of places looking out from indoors. His style has altered once again, taking on a symbolic message, death lies in the garden; a huge tree stump with a naked billhook thrust into its heart was painted after the death of his father, and is simply called February. Trees in an orchard look as much like barbed wire defences as apple trees, stacks of chopped logs and a snake coiled around a fence represent both death and healing.

There are often other mirrorings, from his flat window in St Pancras, he mixes the supports in a pot plant (the plant itself is dead) with the back of an advertisement hoarding and the window frame, making the viewer step back to figure out what exactly is going on here.

His dabbles in abstraction, filling his canvases with objects, often mathematical or draughtsmen’s tools, strange perspectives.

His landscapes of Berkshire and Oxfordshire however, return more and more to the naturalistic, though there is often something uncannily like the world war landscapes in the placing of ponds and curving hills. But trees and birds abound.

His flirtation with Surrealism and Expressionism failed to move me, it seemed to be an experiment engaging the mind and not the heart, though they are some of his more favoured works.

The Second World War intervened and he joined the war effort as an official war artist, his age though, kept him in England. Here he was taken to places where Nazi planes had crashed, and he faithfully recorded these spectacular failures: a huge plane, nose-cone deep in Windsor Great Park, a downed bomber bellied in a corn field, and the most famous painting of all –  a graveyard of smashed bombers, looking for all the world like a furious ocean of waves, until you pick out the swastikas and black crosses on wings and tailfins. There is an accompanying video film of Paul Nash visiting this extraordinary place, where smashed planes were gathered in huge stacks.

Paintings of the Rye Marshes and Dymock were done when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, the angular sea wall and the river bending towards the sea take on sinister and war-like appearance, mirroring once again his trench experiences in an earlier war.

After the war, Nash returned to Boar’s Hill, his house looked across to Brightwell Barrow. A view that he had first painted in 1912, calling it Wittenham Clumps, though this is a mis-nomer.

The final room in this exhibition shows about sixteen different paintings all of the same view, though you need to pay attention to see this, since he moves or eliminates various strategic trees, plants or visual clues.

Two of the most striking show the sight of the clump, a high hill with beech trees at its summit, in an eclipse. You see both the sun and the reddened moon floating above this familiar but not familiar landscape. Both painted in 1946, the year of his death.

The trees have grown since then and it is no longer possible to see exactly the view that Paul Nash painted, but you can visit the footpath near Castle Hill, Brightwell Barrow itself, though, is on private land.



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59th London Film Festival Day 5

Two more films, I am not sure I have the stamina for three films a day now, I returned my evening ticket to someone in the “stand-by” queue!

11 RAn American film from the THRILL Section by Director Atom Egoyan called Remember. Two elderly men meet in an old people’s home. (Do you remember Aimée et Jaguar?) Zev (Christopher Plummer) is physically well but is suffering from dementia, Max (Martin Landau) is wheelchair bound, but greets Zev as an old fellow sufferer from the camps. On the death of his wife Ruth, Zev’s condition worsens somewhat, but Max sends him off to seek out a man he has identified as a camp guard. Unfortunately, there are four Germans living in the United States and Canada under the same (and presumably assumed) names, variously played by Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow and Heinz Lieven, there is another who has already died but Zev has an encounter with his son.

This film has a great cast, a compelling, if unlikely, story and will be praised and damned in equal measure, I suspect. It is controversial and to my mind, irresponsible. Both the screenwriter and the director have a back-story of their own that might be a justification for making this film the way it is; many people with a real back-story belonging to the characters in this film may agree with the premise (may even wish they had thought of it themselves) and many, many people will ask – can you justify another story about The Holocaust which has no basis in believable fact?

11 GCThe second film of the day was equally hard hitting. Another Danish film with a searing look at Danish history. Gold Coast comes from the JOURNEY Section and covers a short period towards the end of a period when the Danes controlled a section of Africa’s west coast, the Gold Coast in fact. Our main character is called Wulff, (Jakob Ofterbro) he is a visionary plantsman who arrives in Africa with the aim of starting a coffee plantation. We meet him first in dire circumstances, and then backtrack a few years to his arrival in 1836, full of joy and hope.

What he finds though is rather different. Although forbidden by decree, he discovers that the slave trade continues (who knew that the Danish Government were involved, heavily committed in fact, to the slave trade? Not many of today’s Danes, it would appear.) After an encounter with a hostile Ashanti people, Wulff travels inland to another outpost of Danish sovereignty to meet Richter (Wakefield Achuaku), Richter in spite of his name has strong ties with the Ashanti (the actor’s surname gives you a clue); an agreement is reached that Wulff will no longer be harassed by the Ashanti, so his project thrives. But recovering from a fever, he sees from the walls of Christianberg, a slave trading mission.  Distraught he goes to the Governor and gets permission to take action against Richter. While this is taking place, the Governor dies and his place is assumed by another Dane, who recalls Wulff. Wulff chooses to ignore this summons, eventually successfuly raids the castle stronghold and releases the slaves and takes Richter back to the new Governor Dall.

This all goes wrong…but the colour of Richter’s skin in an important pointer to the realities of the slave trade, one which hardly ever gets a mention…

Apologies, I haven’t has time to proofread this.

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Strange Beginnings – biographical novels

Sort of a half way stage between fiction and non-fiction, the biographical novel expands imaginatively, but hopefully realistically, the lives of the famous and their partners or something along those lines. With this in mind, I picked up two novels recently which do just that.

W&T Will and Tom, the new novel by Matthew Plampin, covers a very short period of about six months when J M W Turner, the painter stays with the Lascelles family in the country, at Harewood House. According to this novel, he is embroiled in a prank played on him by Beau Lascelles who has invited him and Tom Girton, also a painter to stay at the same time.

The established facts are that Turner did stay with the Lascelles in 1797, at a time when he was beginning to be noticed as a painter, but before he became a member of the establishment: The Royal Academy. Tom Girton, less well known now, and also a painter at the beginning of his career is also recorded as staying at Harewood House in the years both before and after 1797, there is no record of him having stayed then, except two figures in one of Turner’s watercolours, a painter and another lounging beside him on the grass, so this is where the licence of the novelist lies.

The relationship between Will and Tom is real, they are friends but also rivals. Getting noticed and better still commissioned by the rich and rising aristocracy was the bread and butter of painters at this time, exhibiting was one thing, but selling was even more essential. So many, if not all, painters clung to the coat tails of benefactors like the Lascelles and many others. We can see, from his many sketch books, that Turner did the rounds. His paintings of Harewood and its surroundings are there for all to see, similarly his paintings of the park at Petworth in Sussex and his tour of the Lake District and the North of England. Pages and pages of exquisite water colours. These were the skeletons of paintings that would be “worked up” into oils for the commission.

In the novel, all does not go well. Tom Girton, as portrayed here, is a delight – mischievous, handsome, debonair – and by contrast Will Turner appears uncouth and curmudgeonly and selfish. The sad truth is that genius does not always go hand in hand with physique and good manners. If there is any truth in Timothy Spaull‘s Turner in the Mike Leigh film about the eponymous painter, this novel has nailed Turner to a T.  Although I would prefer not to know that my heroes had clay feet.

I loved this novel. It is pacey and amusing, it rattles along with a good yarn and shows not two, but three people who are rising from obscurity. The Lascelles family were also aiming high – and looking at where they all are today, two out of the three made it to the pinnacle of their position.

Of Tom Girton less is known, he died young of asthma or consumption, but of him and his work Turner is known to have said “If Girton had lived, I should have starved”; Turner is now considered one of the best painters of the 18th century and the Lascelles have close relationships with the present Royal Family.

With Mrs Engels, we encounter a different sort of novel all together. Gavin McCrea has opted to tell the story of the common-law wife of Frederick Engels, the German mill owner who helped found the International with Karl Marx and who supported the Marx family financially and even, possibly accepted parenthood for an illegitimate boy that was actually Marx’s own “for the sake of the cause”.

The novel switches from the time when the Engels lived in Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill to the days before when the Burns sisters, Mary and Elizabeth lived in Manchester. Engels first took up with Mary Burns and when she died, took up with Lizzie. He married Lizzie on her deathbed, meanwhile she managed his household, accepted his ‘favours’ and secretly supported the Fenians. The novel is told from her point of view, so our picture of the beginnings of communism may be a little jaundiced. It is startling to discover that Engels lived with two illiterate mill workers, a situation that was considered scandalous in Manchester, such that both girls lost their jobs and became ‘kept’ women. Lizzie thought that it would change in London. It did not, much.

This is an interesting peek into the lives, both above and below stairs, of the middle classes. One, possibly two servants, and quite a lot of hardship.  Lizzie recognises that servants have to work but is not above giving a hand – she has known work herself.

Second generation Irish, Lizzie identifies with the Fenian cause of an independent Ireland and there are some grim details of the lives of the Irish poor living around St Giles-in-the-Fields; a rabbit warren of poor insalubrious streets. Equally the indigent French, escaping from the Commune, many of whom also relied on Engels for financial support, living in lodgings of dubious quality.

In this novel, we swing between Manchester and London and between the home of the Engels and that of Karl Marx in Hampstead. Only Mrs Jenny Marx and two daughters, Janey and Tussy (Eleanor) and the illegitimate son are mentioned in the Marx household, there were many more in fact – all living off Frederick Engels profits from the cotton mills!

UrquartFinally, and rather out on the left field, there is Jane Urquhart‘s new novel The Night Stages. This does not even pretend to be biographical, I only add it here because it contains fictionalised portraits of several real people, among them Kenneth Lochhead, also as it happens, a painter. Lochhead is not the central character, he painted a huge mural, Flight and its Allegories, at Gander International Airport, one of the most important refuelling places on the Transatlantic flights in the early days. The painting is in gesso, a method that uses egg yolk mixed with pigment rather than oil, which Kenny deemed more suitable for an allegory about flight.

Tamara is in Gander Airport, she has packed up and left Ireland, Niall and all his complications and is on a Transatlantic flight to America. But fog has grounded the plane; she knows all about planes and fog, having been a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain in the Second World War, and having lost many friends but one in particular, Elspeth, who had been flying a wounded Fairchild to Stirling for repair, she disappeared in the fog.

There are many marvellous scenes in this novel, among them the lives of the women who moved planes around, flying anything up to five or six quite different craft, we would do well to remember them.

On a typical day, Tam might have been required to taxi five other pilots in an Anson from Cosford to Prestwick, then to ferry a Dakota from Prestwick to Speke, then a Spitfire from Speke to Lynham, then a Mosquito from Lynham to Kemble and another Spit from Kemble to Lichfield, where an Anson would be waiting to taxi her and several others back to the base at Cosford.

Tamara has left Niall because he is married and the affair is over, during the months that it has gone on she has gradually learned more, dragged out tiny bit by tiny bit, about Niall and his missing brother Kieran. In other parts of the novel we learn first hand about Kieran, his awkwardness (which would now be called autism) and then his single-minded attempt to ride an independent race in The Rás Tailteann, the Irish equivalent of the Tour de France.  We also learn a bit more about Niall, his background in meteorology.

Like her other books, one of which, The Stone Carvers, was listed for the Man Booker Prize, Jane Urquhart writes in a plangent poetic style, the sense of place is there but even more, there is a sense of climate – rain, fog, cold, damp – and a sense of smell. This is not simply because one character is intimately concerned with weather, I think it has to do with being Canadian.  Weather conditions matter when they might be the difference between life and death.

I loved The Stone Carvers and I loved this novel, the title comes from the nights spent between the days of cycle racing whether The Rás or the Tour de France.

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58th LFF Day 7 Afternoon

Germany, Pale Mother [Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter] Germany 1980 JOURNEY Section


There are times when you see a film that is so emotional, so expressive that you come out speechless. This is just such a film. This is an archive re-mastering and restoration of a very famous German film, first shown in 1980, devastatingly unanimously panned by the critics and shown in many countries in the shortened version. The Director-Scriptwriter, Helma Sanders-Brahms accepted the wisdom of the critics, and lived to see the restored version which was first shown in Berlin in February this year, Helma died in May.

The UK première of this version was presented at the London Film Festival today by the master-restorer and Helma Sanders-Brahms daughter.

The story behind this film and the film itself is poignant and appalling. The things that happen, happened in real life to Helma’s mother. The voiceover, which is Helma herself, is the voice of the little girl (Helma) born to her parents during the Second World War and in Germany. Her father’s great friend, Erich is a member of the Nazi party and is going out with one of two sisters, Hans goes out with the dark haired beauty, played by Eva Mattes. They scarcely have time to marry before Hans is sent into Poland. During a brief leave before being sent to France, they conceive a child. From then on, through the pregnancy and on into the first years of the child (played at one stage by Helma’s own daughter) the war is raging. Hans comes back for short leaves of two or three days tired, disillusioned and estranged to his equally tired, challenged wife. Their first house is bombed, she goes to Berlin where there are shortages and air raids; finally she is persuaded to leave for the country.

Told in painstaking and fearless detail, with brilliant performances by Eva Mattes and Ernst Jacobi (who plays Hans) the film touches on the emotional intensity of wartime privation and then peace-time dislocation and depression. Hans and Lene have barely time to know each other and later are too exhausted to love each other, and though they have both longed for peace, everything is altered from before. It is not the “after” that they imagined and the war has moved from outside to inside.

This brave telling of how it was for that generation was too much for the sensitivities of the German audience only 30 years later, the cuts made it a stronger, harsher account. Now, seventy years later we are ready for a more nuanced look, but it is not a soft focus idyll. Love is difficult, life difficult and the aftermath of the death camps is fully present, both in the visual representation and in the telling, and re-telling of a particularly gruesome version of a famous fairy tale from The Brothers Grimm.

The title comes from a Berthold Brecht poem, written prophetically in 1933, and read on the film by his daughter.

Let others speak of her shame,
I speak of my own

O Germany, pale mother!
How soiled you are
As you sit among the peoples.
You flaunt yourself
Among the besmirched.

The poorest of your sons
Lies struck down.
When his hunger was great.
Your other sons
Raised their hands against him.
This is notorious.

With their hands thus raised,
Raised against their brother,
They march insolently around you
And laugh in your face.
This is well known.

In your house
Lies are roared aloud.
But the truth
Must be silent.
Is it so?

Why do the oppressors praise you everywhere,
The oppressed accuse you?
The plundered
Point to you with their fingers, but
The plunderer praises the system
That was invented in your house!

Whereupon everyone sees you
Hiding the hem of your mantle which is bloody
With the blood
Of your best sons.

Hearing the harangues which echo from your house,
men laugh.
But whoever sees you reaches for a knife
As at the approach of a robber.

O Germany, pale mother!
How have your sons arrayed you
That you sit among the peoples
A thing of scorn and fear!

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56th LFF Day 6 Evening

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey UK 1945/2014 DEBATE Section


The title sums up this documentary. Filmed by soldiers and journalists in the Allied armies of Britain, America and Soviet Russia, this film was intended to place irrefutable evidence before the German people to discourage any lingering fanaticism or romantic attachment to Hitler and the Nazi Regime of the Third Reich.

Showing in harrowing and painstaking detail the horrific results of barbarous cruelty in only about thirty of the hundreds of camps found as the war was ending, this film took so long to compile from hundreds of reels of film that towards the end of the project the mood of the political decision makers meant that the film was shelved. Only parts of it were used in the Nuremberg Trials, and parts have been used in other documentary films about the Second World War and the Holocaust.

To date the film has not been seen in its entirety. Now thanks to painstaking research by the Imperial War Museum this important document is being seen in its complete form, based on contemporary notes and screening records through which the project has been completed.

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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.
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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