I reckon that good writing is art that conceals art. You know that it is good, but it is tricky to work out exactly what makes it so. This is because it seems to have been brought into being quite effortlessly, almost as if it has always existed. Often, awkward, clunky writing is more transparent; it is easier to put your finger on what makes it stall and stagger. It is far harder to pinpoint what gives writing that little sheen of magic.
Kate Atkinson illustrates this perfectly. For me, she is one of the very best authors around right now and I find it difficult to identify just what it is that makes her writing so special. It certainly isn’t anything as concrete or banal as writing grammatical sentences or using punctuation effectively! It isn’t about precision or polish – not for me, anyway. It is something far more abstract; it is a feeling, almost like being spellbound in some way (yes, yes. I am pretentious. Quite right). As someone who has written (non-fiction) for several years – and as someone who teaches academic writing – I am painfully aware that writing is the very opposite of effortless. But Atkinson’s writing seems effortless and it is effortless to read. Her writing just flows and this makes me feel as though I am in safe hands. I suppose it is a bit like being a passenger in a car driven by smooth, confident driver. You can relax and enjoy the journey. If the driver is giving you a bit of a bumpy ride, it is harder just to sit back, and impossible to switch off the anxious commentary in your head: ‘Do they really know what they’re doing?’ ‘What are they doing that for?’ ‘Do they know where they’re going?’ ‘You know, I’d really like to stop and get out … Or should I hang on and see if things settle down?’ Kate Atkinson’s prose – to extend a dreadful metaphor to breaking point – offers a very smooth ride indeed.
Atkinson’s most recent novel, A God in Ruins, is as masterfully written and as beautifully observed as I have come to expect from her. Published by Doubleday on 7th May, it is a companion, rather than a sequel, to her previous book, Life After Life. Life After Life is a structurally ambitious, experimental novel that focuses on Ursula Beresford Todd. Ursula lives several lives and dies several deaths. Each time she dies, the novel rewinds. She is born again, on the very same day, and gets to live another version of her life. Each version is different, demonstrating the huge extent to which our fates can vary according to circumstance.
Life After Life is a hugely ambitious (and wonderfully enjoyable) novel that works just as well as a family saga. Aside from Ursula, one of the shining lights of the Beresford Todd family is her brother Teddy. It is Teddy who takes centre stage in A God in Ruins. He is a bomber pilot during the Second World War and his experiences of combat are vividly described. The chief focus, however, is arguably on what happens after the war, as Teddy negotiates the challenges of a life he never expected to have. Like its predecessor, this novel can be read as a compelling portrait of an often troubled family. But also like its predecessor, there is something more complex going on, too. A God in Ruins is a contemporary example of metafiction, or fiction about fiction. It is a novel that celebrates and scrutinises what novels can do – something most passionate readers have a vested interest in.
This is a novel that all existing Atkinson fans, and most fans of literary fiction come to that, won’t want to pass on and they will find much to enjoy. I was a little underwhelmed by it, however. In all honesty, I was a little bit distracted when I was reading it and it is probably a novel that demands more attention that I was able to give it. That said, I do feel that a truly compelling novel sucks you in regardless and this one left me feeling rather detached from the whole thing. Instead of a plot as such, I feel that there is a message, a point to be made. A very interesting one, but not enough to sustain this reader for 400 pages. Also, Teddy himself didn’t interest me all that much. Something of a golden boy, he really lit up Life After Life whenever he appeared. He works less well as a main character, appearing one-dimensional up close. Perhaps I am coming across as a wizened old cynic but he is just too bloody straightforward and nice to carry me through a novel.
All in all, then, Atkinson writes with her usual brilliance but A God in Ruins just seemed a bit hollow and shapeless to me. What do I know though? If it is already on your radar, check it out with an open mind. And if you have already read it and think I have missed the point completely, misjudging this wonderful book like a damn fool, do please let me know.
Incidentally, I will be chatting about my favourite Kate Atkinson novel in my Favourites on a Friday post. All will be revealed then!