Following on from last week, I wanted to feature this novel which is one of my favourites from the last twenty years and shows that Kate Atkinson is truly one of our best British novelists. It follows another wonderful novel about the Todd family, Life after Life, which focused on the many possible lives of Ted’s older sister Ursula. This is written as a standalone novel, rather than a sequel and has the honour of being one of the few books that genuinely made me cry towards the end. We meet Ted as he’s a pensioner, living in York, and dealing with living his life alone after the death of his wife. However, we don’t stay there, because as with Life After Life, Atkinson mixes past, present and future with great impact. The novel is also told from Teddy’s point of view, although he does seem slightly omniscient at times, knowing things he wasn’t present for. It is such a poignant history of a man who has lived through a world war, and it feels so authentic. In true Atkinson style, it cleverly manages to be a book about fiction itself.
In Life After Life when the focus was on Ursula, Teddy seemed to be set on course to marry childhood sweetheart Nancy and their life was portrayed as idyllic. Yet in this novel we see that their relationship was far from perfect. Despite this we do follow the lives of their daughter and granddaughter too, to great effect, because it opens up all the changes Ted has seen over his long life. Teddy’s mind often wanders back to his time as part of Bomber Command – something I’ve grown up with because I live in Lincolnshire which is known as Bomber County. In fact in the course of his work as a land drainage engineer, my Dad has accidentally dug up a whole Lancaster Bomber, probably trying to limp home to RAF Blyton, only a mile and a half away. Here the bomber raids were described so authentically, they were harrowing in parts and I could imagine the anxiety of waiting back at base to count the planes back in, knowing some would be missing.
Atkinson manages to combine the personal story of Teddy’s family, with societal shifts that occurred between the wartime generation and those who came of age in the second half of the 20th Century. Teddy is an old school gentleman, often showing acts of kindness and chivalry that make him very loveable. His values are challenged by his daughter Viola, the voice of her generation, who is always looking for the next cause to adopt. She campaigned for nuclear disarmament and supported the women protesting at Greenham Common. She’s a feminist and a vegan, something very unusual until fairly recently in the 21st Century. We are shown how the generation gap creates arguments in a family, where one generation fought in a war and later generations don’t appreciate or fully comprehend the sacrifices that were made for them. Viola could be seen as an unsympathetic character, especially when compared with Teddy’s service. However I wondered if her character developed as a reaction against Teddy’s courage and heroism. Such perfection is hard to live up to. In fact, when Viola tries to reconnect with friends from her travelling days she finds one of them has died and one works in finance – far from the ideals they held before. Unlike Teddy’s generation they have had a chance to regret behaviour and change outlook. Teddy’s friends will always be the same age.
I enjoyed the interesting structure of the novel where we float back and forth in time, between characters and settings. At times Atkinson lets slip a future plot, while still in the past. All of this felt very Virginia Woolf-esque and it suited the narrative. She is such a skilled writer that this never feels overtly literary or highbrow, it remains a light easy read. There is a huge twist at the end that has a bearing on everything you’ve read so far, but it’s not there just for the sake of it. Yes, it’s an excellent example of the post-modern novel, in a similar vein to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but that’s not all. It’s impact of the twist was devastating to me and this is where tears emerged. This unexpected direction is truly a tribute to the men of Bomber Command, especially those who didn’t come home, like the men in the Lancaster my Dad dug up who were only a couple of miles from safety. This novel is simply one way Teddy’s life could have played out and it’s all the more powerful for it. This was an intelligent, well-researched and poignant novel that I think should be viewed as a modern classic.
Meet The Author
Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).