Sunday, August 23, 2015

Crisscrossing Paths in the Garden of Fiction: Those Who Walk Away, and Those Who Don't

            "This is what it's like," the main character in The World Before Us (the novel I am currently reading) observes, "when you walk away from your life." She's run away from both her job and her closest personal connections, which we know are few. But while she is fleeing her adult identity, she is also returning to the site of the great inexplicable tragedy that has marked (and marred) her subsequent life.
            In Kate Atkinson's 2013 best-seller "Life After Life," a book I greatly enjoyed, it's the author who walks away from events in her characters' lives that her narrative has already shared with us. Her heroine steps onto her roof to retrieve a younger sibling; she slips, falls fatally. Well, no she doesn't, as we find out in the next chapter. It doesn't have to happen that way. Let's imagine the episode turns out differently and no one gets hurt.      
            Later, one of those pre-antibiotic child-killing infections is brought back from London to the family's suburban home. Her heroine's baby brother, the darling of the entire family, catches the bug and passes away. Unbearable gloom everywhere. But a little later the author offers us another treatment of the same events, and baby Teddy survives to become the best beloved of many. Women in particular adore him.
            That's the way things go in "Life After Life," a book that rated high with both the reviewers and the best-seller list.
            In Atkinson's follow-up novel, "A God in Ruins" (which I recently finished), little brother Teddy, already spared in several plot revisions in "Life," looks to be in need of saving from the first page to the last. Unlike the traumatized heroine in Aislinn Hunter's "The World Before Us," he never tries to walk away from his life; it's the life he's forced to live that keeps trying to kill him.
            When World War II comes to England he enlists in the RAF. Sister Ursula, the central figure in "Life," now an air raid warden by night and a code-cracker by day, knows lots of government secrets. She knows the odds of a bomber pilot surviving his tour of duty are below one out of ten. But since his country needs bomber pilots to win the war, Teddy volunteers, becomes a good one, and is promoted to wing commander. One of his crewmen calls him 'the best man I ever met,' and that judgment does not seem out of line. Teddy survives his tour and then volunteers for another one.... Death beckons, again and again and again.
            But having resigned himself to his own sacrifice in the cause of a just war, a war that has to be fought, our hero somehow makes it out alive. Without giving too much away, Atkinson once again offers alternative story lines. Was Teddy forced to abandon his failing craft over the North Sea? Or did he ride it down into the ocean in the wild hope of aiding a crewman trapped in the tail of the burning plane? Or survive two years in a German prison camp after being given up for dead by his own government?
            After seeing how effectively this novelist uses the technique of jumping around in time in "A God in Ruins," a reader can wonder whether anyone will bother with straightforward chronology again. Do we not understand why character X is behaving abysmally in her own youthful days, the apparently peaceful and prosperous postwar years? Well, let's go back and see what happened at some crucial pass in childhood. Why is Teddy's daughter, Viola, such a shallow, wholly self-absorbed person that I almost put the book down out of frustration with this hackneyed, cliche-ridden depiction of  a spoiled, dissatisfied boomer?
            And why is she the only person in the world who appears not to like her father? Further, why would the child of such an exemplary human being as Teddy have so much trouble behaving decently to her own children? Most satisfying of Atkinson's many clever exchanges -- Viola: "Was I really such a terrible mother?" Daughter: "Why the past tense?"
            By its close Atkinson's mutable world manages to find justification and the peace that passes understanding for oft-loathsome Viola, as well as an almost unearthly salvation for Viola's emotionally abused and neglected son. The son relies on the nurturing he drew from Grandpa Ted to walk away from his own pain and find a wholly unanticipated new life for himself as an example of a better way for others.
            I confess, though, that this book stirs me most in its brilliantly detailed accounts of Teddy and his crew's brave, but hellish night bombing runs over occupied Europe. These flights are feats of physical endurance amid constant fear and the firm belief in the real possibility of momentary extinction -- exemplified by those occasions when they watch their peers explode into flames from enemy air defenses -- all in the cause of seeking to preserve a decent way of life from a positive evil by the instrumentality of dropping fiery death upon others.
            After reading these passages, I don't think I'll ever be able to walk away from the knowledge that such things really happened to flesh and blood human beings much like ourselves. There is no end to what we owe to the sacrifices of others.