Atkinson, Atwood and Boyd

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Kate Atkinson has been my great discovery this year. Life After Life is an extraordinary, addictive, engrossing and unbearably moving portrayal of Ursula Todd’s life from birth to death, with the added complication that she has the ability to start again whenever her life ends up going down a path of destruction. I loved this book so much that I was desperate to read its sequel, which tells the story of her younger brother Teddy. I was delighted to find a lovely American hardback edition on a dollar stand outside a bookshop in Beacon, NY, this summer, and I started reading it as soon as I got home. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I didn’t know if she would employ the same time altering effect, and was initially thrown off balance by Atkinson’s decision to launch her reader straight into Teddy’s dissatisfying life as an elderly widower, locked in battle with his nasty, ungrateful daughter Viola, and attempting to give his much loved grandchildren some sort of stability. We find out that Teddy did marry his childhood sweetheart Nancy, who lived next door to the Todd family as they were growing up, but she has long since died, as has Ursula, who, in this version of her life, never married and instead focused on having a career. I wanted to go back in time to the Todd children’s childhood, and I wanted to see Ursula again, and see Teddy’s version of their upbringing, so this book beginning in the present, with new characters I didn’t warm to – Viola really is abhorrent – was initially a bit of a disappointment, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the book at all. However, I stuck with it, and soon the Atkinson magic began to weave its spell. Teddy’s years as a fighter pilot in WWII – meticulously researched and brilliantly, movingly evoked – provide numerous series of tense, heart stopping chapters. His marriage to Nancy, his devastation at her death, and the complex nature of different ways of loving are explored with sensitivity and insight. Gradually Viola’s personality is peeled back and the devastating blow she received as a child revealed, explaining so much about her behaviour that I forgave her everything. I truly lived alongside these characters and felt utterly bereft when I finished reading. Atkinson is fantastic at showing how we are all made up of layer after layer of experiences, some of which strengthen, some of which destroy, and how the decisions we make – and don’t make – form not only our own lives, but have untold effects on those whose lives intersect with ours. No man is an island, after all, and Teddy’s life and the lives of those he loves, explore this concept in such an imaginatively profound way. Atkinson’s ability to draw people who feel so completely real is so impressive and I now want to read everything she has ever written. I can’t recommend Life After Life and A God in Ruins enough, if you’ve not yet tried them – they’re both quite long, but so addictive that you can blaze your way through them in no time at all. Perfect under-a-blanket sofa reading now we’re officially in Autumn!

Any Human Heart by William Boyd has been on my should-read list for a long time, and after a breathless recommendation from a colleague, I thought it would be the perfect antitode for my loss of Teddy Todd. It tells the story – from childhood to death – of Logan Mountstuart – who is born at the turn of the century and will live through all of the tumultuous events the twentieth century will bring, often rubbing his shoulders alongside the great and good of the literary and artistic world in the process. It is told in the form of his diaries, which begin when he is at boarding school in England, though a later addition by Logan to contextualise his memoirs allows us to see his early childhood in the colourful, sun drenched world of Montevideo, Uruguay, where his English father worked in the meat canning industry and met his beautiful Uruguayan mother. This exotic world is replaced by the grim Victorian terraces of Birmingham when his family moves back to England, and the rough and tumble intense world of a British boarding school is in sharp contrast to his previous life. However, it is here that he makes two lifelong friends, who will go on to help shape the course of his adult life. Oxford follows school, and then Logan becomes a writer, with initial huge success. He has a failed early marriage to an aristocrat, becomes an intelligence agent during WWII, moves around the world, falls in love and suffers many unbearable losses, experiences the devastating frustration of dreams and ambitions unrealised, and all of this amidst the turbulent background of a century that offered numerous opportunities and startling changes, taking him unimaginably far from the life his parents had pictured for him at his birth. Boyd is a wonderful writer, and in Logan he creates a fascinating, sympathetic and remarkably realistic character who the reader can’t help but fall in love with. My heart broke for him several times, and I was almost inconsolable at the end – so much so I had to lie down for a while once I’d finished! Boyd’s use of Logan’s story to meditate on the utter unexpectedness and unpredictability of life, on the shameful treatment of the elderly, of the importance of being willing to take chances and not allowing fear and pain to dictate our lives, is illuminating and thought provoking and so powerfully emotive. I felt changed by the time I closed the pages, and I don’t think anyone could ever ask more of a work of art than that. You must read it.

Finally, I was looking forward to reading the new Margaret Atwood with breathless anticipation, and when it came out last week, I bought it immediately and started reading. I remember so well the powerful effect The Handmaid’s Tale had on me as a teenager and I was so intrigued to see how Atwood’s always incisive, measured prose and psychologically complex characterisation would develop the story of the world she created so brilliantly back in 1985. After having finished it yesterday, however, all I have to say is how utterly disappointed I am. Margaret Atwood is a genius – fact – and how on earth she managed to produce such a second rate, amateurishly written and simplistic novel is beyond me. It honestly reads like a piece of fan fiction. There is barely anything in here that reads like Atwood at all – apart from there being flashes in the chapters featuring Aunt Lydia – and the two new characters are both like something from a trashy YA novel. I really wish Atwood hadn’t bowed to the pressure to produce a sequel; there was never any need for one as The Handmaid’s Tale is so complete in itself. This fact tells in the aimlessness of this sequel, the point of which I am at a loss to understand. The plot is unrealistic, plodding and painfully obvious, the prose is utterly lacking in any grace or style, and ultimately it is a book that has absolutely nothing to say that Atwood hasn’t already said a thousand times more eloquently elsewhere. The throbbing intellectual poetic passion of her other novels is nowhere in evidence here; largely, I suspect, because she didn’t really have any reason or desire to write this beyond wanting to please fans who were desperate for more. It’s such a shame – I never thought Atwood would disappoint. I feel like the greatest of my literary gods has finally become mortal.

7 Comments

  1. I don’t think I was quite as disappointed as you by The Testaments but I was certainly underwhelmed. I found it vaguely satisfying to know how the fall of Gilead came about but I completely agree that the book lacks the kind of insight and social criticism that Atwood is usually capable of. I think she’s written a capable book that would be fine if it came from most writers but its hardly going to be marked as one of her great achievements – and it definitely shouldn’t be making it onto prize lists!

    So happy to hear you’re continuing to enjoy your encounters with Atkinson! I love her writing (except Transcription, which was very readable but felt weak overall to me) and am always so excited when she has a new book. I can’t remember, have you started on the Jackson Brodie books yet? Rather bleak compared to Ursula and Teddy’s stories but very well done.

    I’ve never read anything by Boyd but I can see I’ll have to remedy that.

  2. I too have just discovered Kate Atkinson and am halfway through “A God in Ruins”. It took me a while to realise I was reading something unique but once I got used to Atkinson’s very individual style I was hooked.
    I am so looking forward to reading “Life after Life” soon – wonderful to discover a new author I like,so many disappointments along the way. I so appreciate your reviews, our tastes are very similar and I love reading your opinions.

  3. I haven’t read A God in Ruins yet, nor much Boyd – but what Boyd I have read I really enjoyed. I haven’t been fussed about The Testaments – I will be shocked if she wins the Booker Prize for it.

  4. Life After Life and A God In Ruins were the highlight of the year that I discovered them. There truly is something magical about Atkinson’s writing.

    As for The Testaments I really have no desire to read it. I loved the ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s tale and want to leave it at that.

  5. I loved Any Human Heart too. It was heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time. I’m keeping it on my bookshelf and know I shall read it again.

  6. What a fantastic post. I love Atkinson, but I could not get on with A God in Ruins and abandoned it, largely due to my dislike of the wretched Viola. I recently listened to The Handmaid’s Tale on the BBC with a view to taking up The Testaments… Hmmm… Sounds like I shouldn’t be in any hurry. But I will look into Wm. Boyd, who is new to me.

  7. Life After Life was such a gutwrenching discovery for me, too, so I’m glad to read that God In Ruins lives up to it. I haven’t been planning to read The Testaments – I stopped watching the Hulu Handmaid’s Tale series after the first season for the same reason, I just can’t imagine it being improved on by being extended.

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