This is the first book I’ve read from Kate Atkinson so I was uncertain what to expect. True to what I’d heard, it is a really good book, although I will add the caveat that you probably shouldn’t read it if you’re depressed. It might tip you over the edge.
The story itself is wound around Ruby Lennox, a girl born to a middle class family in the early 1950s. However, it’s not restricted to Ruby, but bounces around between the generations of her family, from her great grandmother’s time, to her. Each episode is followed, not by its sequel, but sometimes its prequel or another event entirely. The style reminds me of Virginia Woolf or Daphne du Maurier, only more modern. Most of the book is simple narration and all of it is written from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator. It’s as though you’re sitting on the porch listening to an ageless person who watched all the happenings of each generation as they happened tell you about them as they occur to them instead of in a linear fashion. The descriptions are vivid and very realistic. You feel as though you’re there as you listen to the stories.
I found the story a very sad one from beginning to end, perhaps because it is so very close to the truth for most people. You see generation after generation enter the world with high hopes and wind up something completely different than they expected. Only rarely do they come anywhere close to meeting the hopes and dreams they had for themselves. Life gets in the way of their dreams at every twist and turn, partially due to uncontrollable outside influences, but even more sadly, partially because the characters make so many decisions without really knowing what they want and cannot see the consequences of the decisions they make, even though they’ve watched their parents suffer from the same mistakes all their lives. The novel really drives home the feeling we all have that “that just can’t happen to me”. We all think we’ll be so different from our parents, but are we really? Is it because we’re human and human’s are just like that, or is it because our parents teach us to become like them? Or, do we make the same mistakes because we’re afraid of making new ones which might be worse?
The other thing the book drives home is the sadness and the real cost of war. Ruby’s family has lived through both WW I and WW II and has watched many of their family and friends die fighting. Again, you see the young men with all of their potential and hopes lose them to war. The longer they survive, the more they are aware that their luck must be running out and they reconcile themselves to death instead of hoping for the future. Again the descriptions are vivid and make the reader feel as though they are there watching the fate of these young men. It’s all terribly, terribly sad.
Despite all of the sadness and depressing thematics, the novel is very human in the sense that hope reigns throughout. There’s always the hope that things will get better as they change. There is always the hope that things will turn around. I don’t want to give the impression that the book is terribly heavy and depressing, because it is, but it isn’t. Atkinson breaks the novel up by flitting about from childhood memories to scenes later in life and the sometimes quite sarky comments her characters make give the book an element of humour that lightens it up. She keeps some of the family secrets back and only lets them out one by one as the novel goes by, lending an air of secrecy and things left unsaid to the whole of the family. You always know there’s more to come, you just have to be patient and wait for it to show itself when the time is right.
All in all, I give this one a 5 out of 5 for being a poignant, well written, very human story.