First and foremost, this is a challenging ambitious book, more so than Life after Life. The narrative is a labyrinth of twists and turns, false trails, loops and double helixes. There’s also an awful lot to remember because for some time it isn’t obvious which details or even characters are paramount and which stuffing. It covers four generations of a family – from WW1 almost to the present day.
On the surface it’s a tragi-comedy, a family saga, primarily narrated by Ruby Lennox, born in the 1950s. You could though say it’s a gradual debunking of family mythology to find deeper more consequential truths. All families have their mythologies – anecdotes or opportunistic fabrications that play the historian’s role in simplifying and sanitising the official story. That these anecdotes are often a form of deliberate mystification or downright evasive lies on the part of one individual we all know (or suspect) from our own families. The series currently on TV about Bloomsbury is an example of taking mythology at face value and presenting it as the whole truth. It’s one reason why the series is so wooden and bloodless. Because the writer has failed utterly to imaginatively penetrate the various anecdotes that have come to (erroneously) define Bloomsbury – so we have Virginia Woolf as some dessicated twittering bundle of nerves who’s frigid and socially barely able to string a coherent sentence together.
What Atkinson does is to lay down first the mythology – often created by parents who don’t want their children to know certain shameful truths – and then slowly peel off that outer crust. Individual memory is continually altering collective memory. The (often opportunistic) nature of memory is a central theme. And memory is often shown to reside in the secret history of objects, all of which Atkinson describes and utilises brilliantly as cyphers of more enduring truths than the fabrications created by the adult world for children. She plays all these memory games with an ingenious series of chapters known as “footnotes”. (She also lays down a mirroring impression of York itself as a city haunted by phantoms and mythologies).
Ruby’s mother Bunty is the fulcrum of the novel – the reservoir in which all the family memories have collected but she is not a reliable historian because of the severely disciplined (or repressed) nature of her emotions so when she loses her memory to dementia there is the sense that Ruby is finally free of the spurious shackles of her family history.
This is one of those novels that becomes more ingenious the more you think about it. I didn’t always enjoy it while reading it (one problem I had was that my sense of humour doesn’t quite chime with Atkinson’s which can verge on slapstick at times). There’s also so little tenderness in the book. It’s a rather brittle grey heartless world Atkinson depicts. Mothers do not love their children or their husbands. Children often don’t like their siblings. There’s also a huge cast of characters and I found it virtually impossible to retain memory of them all. And a number of clever plotting tricks that continually knock you out of your sense of being able to easily follow the narrative. As a reading experience I would have given it three stars but, as I said, only now am I beginning to understand its complexities of design and intent. I have this overriding feeling it’s a novel that will reveal more of its brilliant ingenuity on a second reading.
There’s also one of the best descriptions of Italian spoken in anger I’ve ever come across when it’s described as being embroidered in blood.