A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

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The Arsonist, by Sue Miller

I love Sue Miller because she writes about real people in real situations. She writes about family and interlocking human relationships. And she writes, in this 2014 novel, about how even in small towns the big world out there becomes part of everyone’s life.

In this case, the big world begins with Africa, and the good that NGOs bring to its people, in the face of poverty and poor public health. This is the world that Frankie (Francesca) Rowley has served for fifteen years. But now she has come home on leave, and is undecided whether or not to go back—back to this world she has dedicated herself to and found a deep satisfaction in. Because she also feels frustrated, at not having been able to make a permanent difference. And doubts she ever will. And so wonders what her true calling in life is.

She returns to a family she left in order to find out who she truly is. To a father, Alfie, an academic the family sacrificed itself for, but who never fulfilled his own intellectual promise. To a mother, Sylvia, who not only led that sacrifice but who also paid much less attention to the well-grounded and intelligent Frankie. Instead, paid more attention to her flighty younger daughter Liz, who is now, ironically, settled, happily married, and a mother.

The Rowleys have moved to their summer home in Pomeroy in northern New Hampshire. The bulk of this story takes place there, where the father has just retired to in order to write a long-planned book. Frankie is not sure how long she will stay, but as she meets the town’s residents, both summer and year-round, she and gets to know this town.

Two events dominate this work. They are unconnected, but they bring her, and us, closer to the town’s quiet environment. First, on the night Frankie arrives, a neighbor’s summer house, vacant, is burned down. It is the first in a series of fires set by an unknown arsonist who gives the book its title. It also lends moderate suspense to this novel that is otherwise laid back, like its heroine, like the town residents themselves.

But its main purpose seems to be to bring more of the big world out there into this small town. It is a variation on the world of terrorism which Frankie first encountered in Africa. That is, the world’s social tensions have entered even into “this little, closed-in world” of Pomeroy. And are fostered by the burgeoning differences between the townies who live there year long and the summer residents who come and go. For it is the latter’s homes being torched. Is a message being sent to them? And by whom? Perhaps by a person who may be encountered on the street at any time?

As Ron Charles writes in the Washington Post, Miller is “interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and ‘chatty, self-assured summer people’ who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure. The fires force everyone to consider ‘who owned the town and who merely used it.’”  Which expands the context of this novel, even as it focuses on the individual participants.

In the second event, Frankie meets Bud Jacobs, a newspaperman who has just bought this small-town weekly as an entrée into a kind of life he always yearned for. Sparks slowly ignite between them, and their relationship becomes the heart of the novel. It is a passionate affair, but the author makes it clear merely through suggestion, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the prurient details. But the main question does become clear: will Frankie sacrifice her ambition in the big world out there for the love, the deep connection, that she has found here after yearning for it for years?

It is the pursuit to find the answer to these questions that pulls the reader through these pages. Who is the arsonist? And will love prevail? And in the first pursuit, we follow the conflict between the summer folk and the full-time residents, whether they are worshipping together or mixing at the town dances. And we probe deeper into life of the town, such as the emergency procedures of the volunteer fire department in responding to the fires, and, with Bud, the normal procedures of his weekly newspaper.

There is also a secondary story that lends substance to Frankie’s family life. Her father, Alfie, begins to have spells, and then memory lapses, finally wondering off into the woods alone, drawing a search party from the entire town. As a result of Alfie’s condition, Sylvia reveals to Frankie her true feelings about her husband, which surprises both Frankie and the reader. But it also prompts Frankie to consider her responsibility to her mother. As well as reflect Miller’s own interest in family responsibility among the generations. And, finally, Alfie’s status also brings to a head Frankie’s own relationship with Bud.

And from here, the novel’s two primary issues work themselves out. Not really in a dramatic way, but in a way that is truer to life than it is in most fiction. As a result, the two outcomes leave the reader with no major impact at the end, no rush of emotion that so often makes the reading of a novel so fulfilling. As Jean Haney Korelitz notes in The New York Times, “This may be intentional, but it might also irritate readers hoping for a more concrete resolution of Frankie’s conundrum, and of the arsonist’s identity.”

But if I myself was not moved, I was content with the novel’s resolution. For it works in the context of the quiet, daily lives of these characters, both the Rowley family and the many townspeople. And it is complementary to the quiet drama of this novel, the drama of arson in which no one is ever hurt, and the drama of a love affair that belongs to its own world, the world of two disparate people who find love where and when they least expect.

I look forward to more novels from Sue Miller. Family is her subject, and family has long been a major literary subject by the great novelists. How they begin, how they endure, and how they end.

(December, 2016)

The Double, by Jose Saramago

Saramago remains an intriguing and distinctive author. He is distinctive because of his style, even in translation, a style in which his paragraphs are pages long, with much in each paragraph being an exchange of dialogue between two characters. And yet one is seldom confused about who is talking, primarily because even when the dialogue is separated only by commas, the responding dialogue always begins with a capital letter. And even more, because the succeeding dialogue is a true response—as the perspective, the angle of view, changes.

It is a unique style, and one wonders what prompted it originally. Surely it was not that a new paragraph as each person speaks would require more space and therefore more paper to be bought by the publisher. In any event, his style is unlike that of any other author I know. And yet it is a pleasure to read. It is also a challenge, but one reward is the pleasure in knowing one is following the dialogue. Another pleasure is in certain exchanges, such as with the main character’s own conscience. And still another, I must admit, stems from occasional humorous remarks by the author, as well as his directly addressing the reader, suggesting what fools these mortals of his might be.

But what about the story being told in this style in this 2002 work? One senses that for each of his novels, Saramago tries to identify a human situation, and then stretch it to a logical but extreme depth that reveals something of human nature or human society. He looks at a normal situation, and then asks, “what if…?” In this novel, however, I feel that he has stretched his template too far.

The hero, Tertuliano Maximo Alfonso, a bored high school history teacher, rents, for diversion, a recommended movie. Tertuliano then wakes in the middle of the night, discovers his movie being replayed on his VCR, and becomes aware of a scene he had missed, in which a minor actor in a hotel desk scene is his exact duplicate, his double. It is a moment of surrealism to introduce a surrealistic possibility. But what follows is on a naturalistic level, such as Tertuliano’s convoluted search for the actor who plays the hotel clerk, whose real name turns out to be Antonio Claro; his fear to tell anyone, even his mother and his girl friend Maria da Paz, that such a twin exists; and then, after long indecision, his interaction with, first, the actor’s wife and then with the actor himself. And from there, the author stretches subsequent events step by step, almost to the breaking point.

Indeed, the climax became for me the breaking point. Even early on, I sensed the author was playing with his audience, as he doubled up the complexity of Tertuliano’s situation. But the real breaking point was not the teacher debating with himself: how will he handle the situation? Nor his decision not to tell his girl friend or his mother of this duplicate. And not when the two men communicate, first by phone, then by mail. It was the attempted double twist of the ending. Because it revealed the author was not exploring in this novel the ramifications of more significant shifts in what humans take for granted, such as that we shall die or that we shall not lose our sight. It was because he was exploring a personal situation, a subject less profound and less significant than the premises of his earlier novels.

I might also note that while the two characters are exact physical duplicates, they are completely different inside. The actor is more confident, more outgoing, while the teacher is withdrawn and depressed. And this difference is not deftly explored. It would seem to offer a source of irony that is not taken advantage of. Perhaps John Banville in the New York Times is close to the truth, when he says the two doubles are not created in depth, which results in the reader being more interested in the situation than in the characters themselves and what happens to them.

I should acknowledge that the Boston Globe review calls this work “a wonderfully twisted meditation on identity and individuality.” And that description, within limits, is justified. On the other hand, I also felt Saramago did not probe deeply enough into Tertuliano’s psychological reaction to his situation. Our hero seemed more concerned about his relationship to his girlfriend and mother than in how he should confront himself and the world.

I should also note that Richard Eder in the Times says that this is one of Saramago’s two or three best novels. Not because of the situation, however, but because of the way the author handles it. Meaning the give and take, the back and forth among the characters. For me, however, the give and take involves merely the structure, not the heart of the situation, the heart of the novel. Which is: how is Tertuliano affected inside? Perhaps his final decision, the sudden trickery by this man slow on the uptake, indicates a change, but for me it is a change that reflects more the author’s handling of the situation than anything coming from within the teacher himself.

I was speculating, in fact, that, given the modesty of the situation, the author would come up with a surprise ending to lend his novel a greater impact. Perhaps, I thought, the two characters would swap lives, which might also include a bit of irony. Well, you might say I ended up half right, but the outcome is developed more naturalistically. And is also achieved by introducing sudden death, which was a surprise but not a convincing one. But perhaps Saramago was not convinced either, for he adds on an extra twist, and I believe an unnecessary one. Irony was certainly intended there, but it also was unconvincing, indeed, coming out of left field. Unless, but I don’t think so, it was intended to mirror the lives of actors, such as Antonio Claro, who take on many roles.

I shall certainly be interested in reading more of Saramago’s work. Whether or not he is a Communist or an atheist, he knows how to explore, with originality, the idiosyncrasies produced by nature or by the logical distortions of human nature. He is one of his kind. And, come to think of it, perhaps the complexity of his style helps the reader to become more deeply immersed in the bizarre complexity of his situations. (December, 2016)

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

The popularity of this Norwegian mystery writer has been growing, and I was curious to learn what it was all about. I can now understand that popularity, although this early 2002 work did not impress me that much with its story—a prime reason being that the complicated events were difficult to follow. Why was this? One reason is that the characters were not clearly delineated, neither the policemen nor the suspects, villains, and victims. Nor did their interactions help distinguish themselves from one other. But what did impress me was the texture of the writing, the setting of the scenes, and the constant action moving ahead.

The novel begins as a story of two crimes, that of a bank robbery and a murder and that of a death that suggests suicide but may be murder. The bank robbery that opens the book results in the death of a woman teller, and the suspicion that the killer and the victim knew each other. Meanwhile, a young woman is found shot to death, with a gun in the wrong hand. She is a former girlfriend of Nesbo’s series detective, Harry Hole. He had spent the previous night with her but cannot remember what happened.

The result is a series of complicated developments that are difficult to follow, not least because the author keeps shifting his focus: from one crime to the other and from one suspicious activity to another. But also, as I said, because the characters serve more the functions of the plot than come alive on the page. And their shifting motivations are complicated as well. They involve love affairs, jealousy, rage, revenge, the rivalry of brothers, and gypsy culture.

We follow the story mainly through Harry Hole’s efforts to clear himself from suspicion of murder. He duels with a fellow cop who wants to pin the murder on him, negotiates with a gypsy prisoner to find the girl’s actual killer, and receives teasing emails from the girl’s presumed murderer, who intensifies his own sense of guilt. The result is a complexity that keeps the reader off-balance, which promotes the book’s intrigue but can be confusing, as Harry shifts from one concern to another, and from one crime to another.

For a long while, it is not clear which crime is intended to be dominant. The bank robbery and murder that begins the tale, or the girl’s murder that implicates Harry. More time is spent with the latter, which hits closer to Harry’s home, but the former has international implications that prompt a visit to Brazil. While the solutions never come together, their themes, their motivations, do in many ways. There is brotherly conflict, there is betrayal in love, and there is authorial misdirection. Indeed, the solution to the girl’s death, while intended as a big surprise, is for me too much of a twist that betrays the author’s hand. I was unprepared, and therefore somewhat reluctant to accept it.

As Marilyn Stasio writes in the Times: “Nesbo falls back on coincidence and some other questionable devices. The problem isn’t that he fails to tie up all his story lines, it’s that he does it so carefully and neatly that the plot machinery is revealed for what it is— machinery.” Perhaps the novel’s length of around 500 pages has also been necessary to develop this complicated machinery. And so winding it down somewhat succinctly at the end lends a sense of arbitrariness.

Nemesis is the Greek god of justice and revenge. Thus, the title, for each major death is motivated by revenge. But one senses the author has backed into this theme, or at least the title. As if to make the execution fit the crime. But while these solutions reflect a psychological depth, they do not rise out of character depth. They seem to have been pasted in by the author to fit the facts.

And yet, there is enough depth here, enough intriguing plotting, enough Norwegian atmosphere, enough interesting series characters to prompt interest in more of Nesbo. As a series hero, Harry Hole offers distinct, if familiar, possibilities. He is moody, rebellious and hot-headed, tends to drink heavily, and likes to act alone; but he is also one whom other policemen respect, and whose superiors also accept, because of his incisive detective skills.

Among the interesting police characters are Beate Lonn, a new female recruit who seems innocent in the ways of the world, but who can remember faces and whose interaction with Harry offers possibilities; and Inspector Waaler, who dislikes Harry, and is out to pin a murder on him. The other police officials, however, such as Halvorson, Moller, Ivarsson, and Weber are mainly supernumeries who serve a purpose rather than exist as real characters. As is psychologist Stale Aune, whose discussions with Harry serve primarily to give psychological depth and psychological possibilities to the actions of the more suspicious characters.

Yes, I will read more of Nesbo. But I would hope he explores more deeply Harry’s relationships with his fellow policemen. That he avoids fictional complexity in favor of psychological or political complexity. And that he sharpens his focus by digging into the heart of a single criminal activity. Whereupon, the Oslo setting and/or the darker Norwegian atmosphere and culture will also become a plus. (November, 2016)