Tag Archives: World War I

REVIEW: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-Life-The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.

“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”

Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.

I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.

The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.

So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.

The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.

If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.

All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.

In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.

When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.

Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?

A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.

At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.

For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.

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TGIW: A real Maisie Dobbs

by Libby Sternberg

For the past several years, hubs and I have tried to solve a puzzle: What started World War I?

I know, I know, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and then…stuff happened. But, what precisely was the “stuff” and in what order? It wasn’t as if the archduke was felled and the whole of Europe ran to grab their rifles from the attic like some Keystone Kops crowd swarming the scene.

What we’ve been trying to pin down are all the intervening steps from royal assassination to worldwide conflict. We know the assassination was the first domino to fall. What were the others?

Bridge over field of poppies-WWI Museum

Bridge over field of poppies-WWI Museum

So we’ve been reading books and even watched a rather grim documentary series on the subject of the war that we rented from Netflix. Still, our view is murky. Which is probably because the whole business was murky. People are still writing books about it, after all.

When we were in Kansas this past June, we took the time to go visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, do not hesitate, go visit this museum. It was one of the best museums I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in most of the Smithsonians in DC. A Kansas friend of mine recommended it, and I’m very grateful.

What makes this museum so great is that whoever put it together seemed to understand how to keep you interested and how to actually provide information. I tend to be a gobble-it-all-up excited museum-goer. I want to just race through them, looking at this, grabbing that view and then decompressing before I re-view exhibits. Maybe I have an attention deficit problem. I dunno. Those were diagnosed after I was a young’un.


Nurses boarding a British ship during World War I.

The World War I Museum allows you to sample or to amble. You can look and read and move on. You can linger. Either way, you’re going to get the picture.

The whole experience starts when you walk over a transparent “bridge,” below which is a field of bright red poppies, into the dimmer cavelike structure of the museum. It’s as if you’re walking into a bunker, a trench.

Wall displays give you a timeline–at last, the falling dominoes are made clear–for each year of the war. But at the bottom of each dreary list of battle bullet points there are other facts–things that were going on outside the war, video clips of Chaplin films, other notable events. This gives you context as you nod your head to events you’re familiar with, now seeing them happening against the backdrop of the war.

Listening booths let you sample songs and poetry of the era. Listening to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” after seeing the various exhibits is a sobering experience.

But, speaking of poetry and the written arts in general, World War I supplies inspiration for many a story. Pat Barker’s trilogy is set during this time. Regeneration, from that trilogy, is a haunting tale that includes the ill-fated Owen as a character. The popular television series Downton Abbey included a season in which the war played a pivotal role. And recently Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End was dramatized on film.

In commercial fiction, the aftermath of the Great War is captured in the popular Maisie Dobbs mystery series, written by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie is a private detective and adroit in psychological arts. She is deeply affected by the war, having served as a nurse to the wounded and losing her beloved to shell-shock.

For those who are fans of this series, let me make a recommendation: the biography of Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. Brittain is very similar to Maisie (so much so that some astute mystery readers wonder if Brittain is Winspear’s inspiration). As a girl, she yearns to know things, to learn. She goes to university and becomes a nurse when the conflict starts. She has a beloved, too, who meets a sad end. And even though you know his fate when you begin the book, it cuts you to the core when you learn of his battlefield death through Brittain’s words. She suffers other losses, too, and by the tale’s end, you’ve experienced with her the complete devastation of this war to end all wars.

“For me, as for all the world, the War was a tragedy and a vast stupidity, a waste of youth and of time; it betrayed my faith, mocked my love, and irremediably spoilt my career.”

She became a pacifist and did find another love, whom she married. But World War I left deep scars that never really healed.

Armistice Day will soon be upon us. On the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918, the “war to end all wars” ended. Alas, as we all now know, it wasn’t really the end, but merely a tamping down of embers that would burst into flame a little more than 20 years later.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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TGIW: If you like Downton Abbey, you might like this

by Libby Sternberg

Years ago, my daughter and I became entranced by a short series shown on PBS called The Cazalets. The actor who played the older brother in the show was none other than Hugh Bonneville, who went on to great name and face recognition as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, in the popular Downton Abbey series.

cazaletsBut the two stories have more in common than just a lead actor. Both tales involve the struggles of a British family and their servants through the life-changing experience of war. In Downton Abbey’s case, it was the First World War that played a pivotal role in the first two seasons.

In The Cazalets, the family is immersed in the fear and tension of British life before World War II. While The Cazalets ended its run with the actual outbreak of war, the books upon which it is based took the families through the global conflict and beyond. So, if you’re craving a Downton Abbey “fix” while waiting for the series to return for its next season, I recommend losing yourselves in the following excellent books by Elizabeth Jane Howard:

DowntonAbbeyI only became aware of these books on the recommendation of my sister. After I’d expressed my enjoyment of the PBS series, she pointed out that they were based on a series of novels. The author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, might not be a household name, but she’s written more than a dozen novels and is the mother of novelist Martin Amis.

The cast of characters in her Cazalet books is as varied and numerous as those in Downton Abbey–maybe even more so. The Cazalets, however, are not members of the aristocracy but rather, successful British industrialists. Each book includes at the beginning a family tree as well as a list of the servants and the households to which they are attached.  These come in handy as Howard moves seamlessly from story line to story line, following everything from the cook’s romance with a chauffeur through marriages and romances for the estate owners themselves.

A notable difference between the Cazalet series and Downton is the inclusion of the viewpoint of children. At the outset of the series, the Cazalets’ brood of children is large and ranges from infants to preteens. By the time the books finish, the teens have matured into adulthood. We follow their lives, as well, including the troubled and talented Louise Cazalet, who aspires to be an actress. Louise’s narrative arc makes one wonder if the author was telling her own story–they both share a birth year, and Elizabeth Jane Howard herself was an actress and model before settling down to writing.

Period detail enhances Downton Abbey. It permeates the Cazalet series, too, in small and significant ways. The author didn’t need to do historical research–she was writing about a period she’d lived through. So you, the reader, are given a window to peer through at the ordinary lives of British citizens as they struggled with rationing, air raids, shopping for underwear, getting perms for their hair, dealing with parents, children, and the meaning of their lives in the midst of upheaval.

Howard doesn’t focus at all on the battles of the war. They are scarcely mentioned. Instead, her narrative is about the effect of the war on families. Her observations in this regard lift the books from mere melodramas into something more, as in this passage when the beautiful and cossetted Zoe Cazalet goes to see her mother and reflects on her visit on her way back to her Cazalet home:

She had thought that a weight would be lifted once she had got into the train with the visit behind her, but the pall of boredom and irritation was quenched now only by guilt, as she thought of all the ways in which she might have given her mother more pleasure, been kinder, nicer, more patient. Why was it that, in spite of all these years during which she felt that she had grown from being a spoiled and selfish girl into a thoroughly grown-up wife and mother and responsible member of a large family, she had only to be with her mother for a few minutes to revert to her earlier, disagreeable self?

These insights abound, as do wonderful revelations about life in Britain in the 1940s. These books are a must-read for any author wanting to pen a tale set in that time and place–no amount of research on the time would provide you with as much useful detail of everyday life.

Sad to say, but the books appear to be out of print, so they’re a bit pricey as you try to find good used copies. But if you pick up the first book, you will likely be hooked.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Buy her books so she can buy more books, too!

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