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Book Club #1

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A God In RuinsThe Miniaturist and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Discuss.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson ✰✰✰

This is the latest Kate Atkinson novel, it came out last year as a companion to 2013’s Life After Life. We’re still in the grip of WW2 and we’re still with the Todd family, though this time we get to see everything through the eyes of Ursula’s bomber pilot brother, Teddy. If you’ve read Life After Life, then you probably remember that Teddy dies a young man in 1943 when his RAF plane is shot down over Nazi territory.  So, similarly  to Ursula’s feline (or should say vulpine) gift of nine lives,  A God In Ruins imagines the life Teddy might have lead had he survived.

It all gets a bit meta – Teddy isn’t a real character even in the fictional realm, which is quite sad really, knowing Teddy is based on your average Tommy. Unlike Life After Life, we stick to just one alternative version of events, rather than switching between different possibilities and so it’s quite easy to get carried away with how lovely Teddy’s character is, forgetting that he is completely make-believe. He is heroic in an unremarkable, everyday way and as you reach the end of his would-be biography, there is some really beautiful prose about how much the real world feels his death and misses his presence, even when he wasn’t ever there.IMG_0267

Now I am a loyal Kate Atkinson fan, I have read ALL of her novels and short stories, so I picked up on a change in her style when reading this. The early novels like Behind The Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet (best book ever) are quite experimental really; she is a very postmodern writer and there usually is a lot going on with time, narrative,
context…A God In Ruins has eased up on this quite a bit. It doesn’t exactly stick to a traditional novel pattern but it is pretty straightforward to read. I suppose it’s the reader’s job to keep in mind the bigger picture, you have to remind yourself that it is all lie – a well meaning one, but a lie all the same.

It is a more serious and a slower read than it’s predecessors; it is a long book, but it feels long. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, the detail of it makes for real sentimentality and a great history lesson – Atkinson really did her homework, or rather, did yours for you.

A God In Ruins does what it sets out to do very successfully, but it didn’t knock my socks off… and some of Atkinson’s other novels really have.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton ✰✰✰

I bought this book for it’s cover really; it looked attractively easy on the special offer table in Waterstones. A quick skim of the blurb made it sound pretty exciting and presented a sturdy list of recommendations and prize short-listings too – and this is Burton’s debut novel.

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, against a backdrop of the sugar trade, slavery and the Calvinist church (sold!), we see everything through the eyes of Petronella Oortman, a young girl married off to a wealthy merchant in the city, Johannes Brandt. Nella soon finds that married life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; her new husband and sister in law are mysteriously distant, she feels trapped and alone.

IMG_0263.jpgJohannes tries to palm Nella off with an extraordinarily intricate, expensive dolls house;  a miniature replica of the townhouse they share. This is where things start to get a little creepy…the toy house starts showing voodoo qualities, mimicking what is going on in the real world. For the secretive Brandt household, this is far from ideal…and these are unforgiving times they live in.

Wow, tense. But then, the build up just doesn’t go really anywhere. While I expected some real drama, I could predict every single revelation and plot move before it happened. I’m not sure if it was done intentionally to show Nella’s naivety or to paint a picture of how dangerous their society was, but I just ended up bored.

There are some colourful characters but again, they end up being a bit disappointingly transparent before too long; they seem too obviously typecast. The miniaturist in The Miniaturist  is probably the only character who escapes this, but in turn, I found her role frustratingly unexplained.  Maybe I just missed the point, but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed, which is strange considering how interesting the idea and context behind the book  are.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler ✰✰✰✰

There’s not a lot a I can really say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without completely giving the game away; there is a pretty crucial twist midway through the first half which would be a shame to spoil. I will say that I loved it though. I’m new to Karen Joy Fowler, though she wrote The Jane Austin Book Club, which I think was made into a lousy film. I had We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves recommended to me, and I am very grateful for it or I might not have picked it up at all.

The story revolves around a woman, Rosemary, revisiting her past and dealing with some of the psychological damage she has grown up with following a traumatic event in her childhood. Rosemary has had an extraordinary upbringing, and she looks back with a more compassionate understanding of her life and herself than she has had before.IMG_0262.jpg

Rosemary is the story’s only narrator and she is a really interesting character. She has an underplayed sort of intellectualism, which makes her narrative both full of insightful tangents and very funny, though the writing is always accessible.

We are placed in three key times frames, the first is when she was a little girl in the 1970s; we spend most time however during her college years in 1990s California; the final perspective, which underpins the whole story, is from a Rosemary in her mid 40s, living back in her native Indiana. Using herself as a case study, Rosemary contends with all kinds of complex ideas about family dynamics, psychology, femaleness and human nature itself, but all in a very manageable, human way.

Once you get to the crux of the story, everything else falls into place and, hopefully you’ll see what I mean. From start to finish, it is a real pleasure to read and as a bonus, has the best book title I’ve heard in a long time.

 

 

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