A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

What
is the sum of a life?  In a
companion piece to Atkinson’s earlier Life
After Life,
A God in Ruins asks
the question, how do you take all the disparate parts of a life, the ones
everyone knows about, the ones nobody knows about, the ones people have wrong,
and add them up to some final measure of quality, of richness; how do you
declare a life well-lived?  In her
previous novel, in which Ursula Todd lived life over and over through the
incalculable permutations any life can take given different decisions we might
all make, trying to get it right, Atkinson showed herself to be an astute
observer of the small details that make a story worth reading, and she doesn’t
disappoint in A God in Ruins.

This
novel is, on the surface, about Teddy, Ursula’s little brother, however it
spiderwebs out to tell the stories of Teddy’s daughter, Viola, her two children
Sunny and Berty, as well as Nancy Shorecross, who Teddy eventually marries.
Teddy, like everyone, does not live his life in a vacuum.  He is shaped by and shapes the lives of
his family and friends.  Teddy’s is
also the story of a nation’s, enduring the nightmare of World War II.  Ursula’s story, in Life After Life, told it from the point of view of London during
the Blitz.  Teddy’s is the story of
the bombers and pilots tasked with trying to win the war by ruining Germany’s
infrastructure and morale.  Anyone interested
in World War II narratives will find this an extremely compelling narrative;
non-WWII aficionados, be prepared become one.

Atkinson’s
style is not that of the cliffhanger or great quest to be achieved, but rather
the slow winding out of a skein of wool as the story is knitted together ever
so meticulously, not revealing the full meaning until the very last.  Her narrator is like an old friend, who
has told this story countless times and is reciting it, not to tell some great
truth, but that it might not be forgotten. 

Lovers
of contemporary fiction will enjoy the breadth of this narrative, which spans
from the opening salvos of World War I, through the first decade of the new
millennium.  The characters in this
novel tell the story of a rapidly changing world, and those attracted to
character-driven narrative will find much to love in it.  Readers who enjoy non-linear
narratives, especially including digressive narrative style, will enjoy the
puzzle-piece aspect of the novel. 
And of course, those interested in English fiction, and World War II,
will be captivated by the research and stark reality Atkinson presents.  This is far from a romanticized version
of war.

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China Dolls, by Lisa See

China Dolls stands out as a novel that
tells a World War II story from a somewhat different angle than is usually
taken—the perspectives of three women of Chinese or Japanese descent—yet it is
undoubtedly an American story. 
Lisa See has created a trio of wonderfully nuanced characters who become
coincidental friends at first but who band together to chase the American
Dream.  They are united in wanting
to become dancers and achieve national stardom, beginning with a job is
“ponies” at a nightclub in San Francisco’s China Town called the Forbidden
City.  Each woman—Ruby, Grace, and
Helen—brings her own history to the friendship, including sense of identity,
family history, and talent.  Though
the depth of their relationships wax and wane within the overall plot of the
novel, these three women are inextricably linked by the challenges they face
and the difficult history of the nation they call home.

See
displays a subtle yet biting sense of irony as her characters are both discriminated
against and celebrated based upon their being recognized as Chinese.  Taking the reader from San Francisco to
Hollywood to the Chop Suey circuit of Midwestern and Southern nightclubs, the
novel is rife with depictions of an American Exceptionalism that even today
still holds the U.S. back from being the land of promise that many people wish
to see it as.  Grace grew up
wanting to be the “Chinese Ginger Rogers”; Ruby finds success dancing naked as
“Princess Tai” with only her bubble to hide behind.  The women join a long line of Chinese and Japanese
performers who take advantage of Orientalism to gain stardom, all the while
knowing it could turn on them at any time with no provocation. 

China Dolls, though it depicts an era in
which women and minorities were discriminated against, is its own bootstrap
story, showing how these women who are all wonderfully strong in their own ways
find the means to attain their goals, even if it means running away from an
abusive father, using a father’s traditionalism to escape a painful past, or
forgetting one’s past and heritage altogether in order to move forward.  See doesn’t sugar-coat aspects of our
national past when Japanese-Americans are sent to internment camps, or when the
three women are picked up after a show as “Victory Girls”—sex workers whose
primary clientele are soldiers on and around military bases.  See allows her characters to speak
openly about the difficulties they face, often using humor to explore the
depths of the racism and sexism that pervades early 20th-century
society.  She allows them to remain
flawed characters who grow and change throughout their lives and find their own
versions of happiness. 

Readers
interested in the Pacific Theater of WWII will enjoy See’s interweaving of
history and narrative in China Dolls,
as will readers looking for a less traditional narrative viewpoint on the
subject.  Performance art and show
life, especially in San Francisco, features prominently in the novel, and See
seamlessly blends research and fiction to create a satisfying story. Those looking
for a character-driven novel that allows readers and characters to grow
together will enjoy the ways in which See reveals and blends characters and
their stories in this sweeping novel about friendship and family.

Citadel, by Kate Mosse

Citadel is the final volume in Kate
Mosse’s Languedoc series of novels, which all take place in Southern France,
albeit at different points in history. 
Citadel begins as France has
just lost to Germany in 1942 and has begun to be occupied by the Nazis.  Although Carcassonne and the Pyrenees
region is in the non-occupied zone at first, the city and surrounding countryside
are feeling the strain of rationing, as well as the force of French laws coming
down which support the Nazis.

 Mosse
always chooses captivating topics around which to build her historical fiction,
and Citadel does not disappoint in
that regard.  She has built her
narrative around a young woman who is relatively ignorant of the degree to
which the French government in Paris has capitulated to Nazi forces, and what
it has cost the resistance movement in Carcassonne to push against that.  As Sandrine moves through the story and
becomes involved in the movement, the reader learns with her, but also has the
sobering perspective of knowing what detention means, for example, for Jewish
citizens in France, and what the creeping influence of Nazi occupation
eventually leads to for all of Europe.

 Mosse
is at her strongest when writing dialog. 
Her characters interact fluidly with one another and much of the tension
is built when characters speak to each other.  Citadel is a long
novel, though—saga certainly would be an apt description—and Mosse’s narrative
style can be choppy and long-winded by turns; for readers used to faster-paced
stories, this narrative style can have the effect of pulling readers out of the
story.  There is also the secondary
narrative in Citadel that Mosse is
known for.  She has done an
astounding amount of research on this particular region of France, as well as
early Christian history, and she again has injected that into this novel.  Besides recurring characters from her
other Languedoc novels, Mosse plays with the idea of an early Christian set of
texts which can effect events and people. 
While adding interest to the story, it also significantly increases the
page count.

 For
readers who love well-researched historical novels with a fair bit of romance, Citadel is for them.  Readers looking for a World War II
narrative based in Europe will also find much to enjoy in this novel, as will
those who like loosely connected novel series. 

 It
is worth mentioning that there is a small scene of sexual violence, as part of
a torture scene, towards the end of the novel that some readers may want to be
aware of.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

           There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it.  And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say.  At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel.  And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives.  It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again.  If there was in fact life, after life.  The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.

           Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read.  Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered.  Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods.  Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death.  As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.

           Life
After Life
is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities.  Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it.  Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women.  There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones.  Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die.  The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.

           Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life.  It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this
novel.