(January 2018)“At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep - as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.”
And this, dear reader, is how we meet Ruby Lennox. During her life, she often announces herself by calling out “It’s just Ruby!”, but she’s often addressed as “ShutupRuby!” She tells her family’s story in the first person, and mixed with her earliest memories (admittedly a lot earlier than any of mine, or, I daresay, yours) are many other people. Lots of other people. Lots and lots of other people. And they’re all related, one way or another. Or would be, if they’d married as intended.
Ruby is speaking “today” about her past and the present, while the others’ stories are told in the third person by the author. We always know when it’s Ruby, but my goodness I get my mothers and grand-mothers and great-aunts and not-really-aunts-but-probably-father’s-floozy mixed up! It’s not that they aren’t described well. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much back story that I start following that thread and losing the main one.
Reading Atkinson is like looking through someone’s photograph album with them and as they get to a group picture, they point to someone in the back row and say (this is me talking, not Atkinson) “Oh, that’s Eve! I must tell you about her. She was such a character and my cousin Adam absolutely adored her and would do anything for her. In fact, once when they were in this garden, she found an apple tree and . . . “
And there’s a long, drawn-out story that recurs now and then about them and their children who used to play with someone else’s children and they all grew up and went off to war, except for the poor sickly one who died of diphtheria, that was so sad, and . . . I get so caught up in that story that I completely lose track of what relationship the original person in the photo had to do with Ruby (or her people), that I forget where I was.
But it almost doesn’t matter. I don’t remember if she’s writing about WW1 or WW2, except that the trenches were One and the aerial dogfights were Two, and “we” (Ruby’s family) lost people in both of them, although I couldn’t tell you who was lost in which one.
War is a major backdrop to some sections. Some boyfriends and would-be fiancés march off, never to return. Atkinson reduces the cast numbers by a chap here or there, but she also gives us some unintended pregnancies here or there, so life goes on.“Bunty had great hopes for the war; there was something attractive about the way it took away certainty and created new possibilities. Betty said it was like tossing coins in the air and wondering where they would land - and it made it much more likely that something exciting would happen to Bunty and it didn't really matter whether it was the unbelievably handsome man or a bomb - it would all mean a change in one way or another.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that the author found this to be true of war as well. It would make something happen.“In the end, Bunty's war had been a disappointment. She lost something in the war but she didn't find out until it was too late that it was the chance to be somebody else. Somewhere at the back of Bunty's dreams another war would always play - a war in which she manned searchlights and loaded ack-acks, a war in which she was resourceful and beautiful, not to mention plucky and where 'String of Pearls' played endlessly in the de Grey Rooms as a succession of unbelievably handsome officers whirled Bunty off into another life.”
Atkinson did write a novel called Life After Life
, which was perhaps inspired by Bunty’s dreams, who knows?
This was her first novel, and what a wonderful and convoluted story it is. I love the writing, the descriptions, and the characters – some stoic, some comic, some quite mad. Not a one of them is boring. I just wish I could keep the generations straight!
An example of her writing that I enjoy: “She pushes her hair back from her forehead in a centuries old genetic gesture of suffering. The life of a woman is hard and she'll be damned if anyone is going to rob her of her sainthood.”
Another:“. . . he was looking at the night sky above him, spread out like an astronomer's map. And then a wave of blackness crept slowly across the sky as somebody rolled up the map."
I just wish there were a cast of characters and a big family tree, neighbours included, for people like me. I'd have given it five stars if I'd had that!
[Read and reviewed Jan 2018. I mention that because Goodreads sometimes mixes up the dates.]