Author Jeannette Winterson was adopted “out of the wrong crib” at six weeks of age. Mrs. Winterson, her adoptive mother, is deeply religious and given to staying up all night so that she doesn’t have to sleep in the same bed as her husband. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is at times a harrowing memoir of how Winterson’s deeply disturbed adoptive mother branded her as an unwanted cast-away — child abuse that left no visible marks but scarred Winterson for life.
After a tumultuous break-up with another woman, Winterson attempts suicide, saved only by one of her cats, clawing her face to wake her after she attempts to kill herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Winterson constructs a ladder of language of prose and poetry and emerges from her pit of despair mentally exhausted but alive. You can’t help but cheer her on as she fights for her own survival.
A God in Ruins is about identity, dutiful love, and above all, self sacrifice. This book, a companion to Life After Life, follows mostly Edward Beresford “Teddy” Todd before and after his Second World War experiences.
At first I was irritated with what seemed like a propensity to live a life of quiet desperation, in an unfulfilling marriage with an exasperating child. I realized that I was looking at Teddy’s life through the lens of the present, where flaky is the norm and commitment is rare.
Teddy’s generation had no choice — his own identity is indelibly scorched in the crucible of the war. Defying death against nearly impossible odds at the controls of a Halifax bomber is the only time he feels truly alive, yet this imbues him with a duty-bound stoicism. His life is a series of sacrifices; first for the war effort, then for his wife, and finally his grandchildren. (Teddy is the only steadying force they have in their lives and they love him for it.)
I enjoyed this book. It’s layered, nuanced, and complex. There’s plenty to explore here — it’s meaty with references to poetry that I have to admit were somewhat lost on me. Duty, honor, and love are compelling themes and it got me thinking about what sort of life is a good life — what it is that etches your life with meaning? Is forsaking your own happiness and well being for country, spouse, children, and grandchildren the key to a life well lived? For Teddy, it seems so — if only for the reason that a whole life can be erased in the instant.
He had believed once that he would be framed by the architecture of the war, but now he realized, he had been erased by it.
–A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
April — May, 2016
Practice makes perfect.
If you could go back in life and get a do-over, would you take that chance and change the course of history? Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel, Life After Life tackles this intriguing question.
Ursula Beresford Todd, human palimpsest, gets the chance to live life after life, each time altering the future based on the sometimes not so fun events of the past. Life After Life reminded me of how the superposition principle of quantum physics plays out in Ruth Ozeki’s marvelous book, A Tale for the Time Being. Ursula’s life path has a bevy of possibilities — the array that collapses as you, the observer, follow her story.
I don’t want to say much about the plot to avoid spoilers, though Life After Life is everything I feel a great book should be. It’s a period piece, set in 20th century Europe. The characters are exceptionally deep, fully-flawed, and interesting. I loved that you get to see and experience each vivid character from many different viewpoints — their best and worst sides included — which makes for terrific, rich reading.
You’re never quite sure where Atkinson is going to take you via Ursula and you’re on tenterhooks until the very last page wondering how this imaginative book will end.
Should you read this book? In the words of Ursula’s mom Sylvie, needs must (necessity compels).
Special thanks to my friend Michelle for putting this book, and its sequel, A God in Ruins on my reading radar.
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