Wow! This book is brilliant! You know when you read a totally original tale, told in a totally original way? This is one such book. It is brilliantly disquieting.
Does the central character, Ursula, relive her life? Or is she suffering some psychic phenomena? Or is this about the author’s control of her characters’ fates? Or is this about the creative process and constructing and manipulating a narrative? Or is it about our, the reader’s, desire for a story with a happy ending? And are happy endings possible? After all everyone has to die. Each liberation from an unhappy fate for Ursula causes a different life to be led but other traumas occur. And even though we know all is made up, we still feel for the characters and empathise and care more for some. (Why doesn’t the evil brother ever suffer?)
Despite the changes to events, the characters remain true to their nature, and the relationships endure. And some little twists or items repeat in different versions of the story, such as the golden cigarette case.
But it is not just the tale or the themes. Atkinson has a wonderful turn of phrase. I love this to describe the slow, languid summer: “It was beautifully hot and time treacled forward.” The image created from turning treacle into a verb is so sensual and gives the physical sense of how summers seem so long when you are young. And the recurring motif when darkness that comes to Ursula as she dies, (“Darkness fell” ends many chapters), even grows weary to the author, “Darkness, and so on.” concludes one reiteration of the Armistice to WWI.
The details of the blitz and pre-WWII upper middle class domestic life and the countryside are so vivid and add to the realness of the novel. I love reading something and feeling that the author is writing with researched authority and accuracy. I love learning from reading novels, not just about the human condition, or themes, but also historical details. Funnily enough, the idea of reading vs studying literature is raised by Ursula and her mother.
Read this review by Alex Clark in The Guardian. She covers the themes and strands of this book so well.
(And can you tell that it is holidays for me? Time to read and travel. Things that make up a gorgeous life for me!)