A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

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Best title ever. And since you cannot copyright a title, it’s been used before, by Leon Uris in his 1999 novel about a presidential election. I haven’t read it, but according to some reviews, the story gets lost in the single-minded hammering of the author’s political views.

The title comes from “Nature”, a poem by Emerson:

A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.

Why am I going on about the title when there is a book to discuss? And it is a book by one of my favorite authors. Because I thought it a shame to see Atkinson’s brilliant wordsmithing wasted on such a miserable story.

This book is a companion piece to Life after Life, her novel exploring the many lives of Ursula Todd, which asks: what if when we die, we get to go back and try again? And so we return over and over to a snowy night when a baby is born, with a longer or shorter time to go before death comes to reset the game. Aside from one bratty brother, the characters around Ursula are not unpleasant: a large family in a comfortable country home waited on by a few servants. Their rather ordinary joys and sorrows change slightly with each go-round, some permutations lasting long enough to thrust the family into WWII and bleak post-war England.

It’s a neat trick, certainly, and well-handled, but not a story that touched me or moved me particularly. I was slightly interested in the way Ursula’s previous lives began to push through the veil, manifesting themselves as odd impulses or déjà vu. Atkinson can make a scene incredibly vivid, but any emotion conjured up is quickly dashed away. Death begins to mean no more than the buzzer at the end of a video game before it starts up again. With the stakes lowered to almost nothing, the events of Ursula’s life, each life, lose all significance. The drama fizzles out, leaving the story curiously flat.

Let me say it again: Atkinson is an incredible writer. I could pull passage after passage to show you what I mean. But the book as a whole just seemed like a bloodless experiment.

I hesitantly began this companion book, which follows Ursula’s little brother Teddy from adulthood into old age, dipping repeatedly back into his experiences flying a bomber in WWII. Again, individual scenes are brilliant. However, the story never took off for me. The characters seemed nothing more than chess pieces being moved about to demonstrate the clever structure.

Without do-overs, the stakes should have seemed higher for these characters. Teddy, after all, faces death day after day during the war. Yet, although a confident and successful pilot, he is an oddly empty person, letting things happen to him, accepting what comes without a murmur. Not a bad philosophy in wartime when pilots didn’t survive long, but not making for an interesting protagonist to follow through several hundred pages.

The other main character is his daughter Viola, a horribly selfish and nasty person without a single redeeming characteristic. Atkinson gives her every negative stereotype of a hippie boomer: rebellious, wearing sandals year-round, making inedible vegetarian meals, neglecting the two children she’s named Sun and Moon, just to list a few. Even if all I knew of hippies and boomers were the labels used to mock them, I could not accept such a flat, uncomplicated beast as a real person.

I recently read Elizabeth George’s Playing for the Ashes, which features a similarly crude, rebellious and angry young woman. She has devoted herself to making her parents and herself miserable, perhaps even causing her father’s fatal heart attack. But by the time we meet her, she has come to love one person, though she cannot yet admit it to herself, and the animals he cares for. That’s all it takes to make her seem real.

Viola simply loathes everyone and everything. Near the end, we are given a possible reason for her awful behavior; perhaps if it had appeared near the beginning I might have been able to see her as more than an ugly cartoon. Atkinson’s vivid writing makes Viola’s beastliness into something truly atrocious, as when for example we are plunged into Sun’s misery when he is sent to live with his father’s cruel parents because Viola can’t be bothered with having him around. The author is able to work her magic by giving us Sun, previously only seen as a brat, in all his complexity of competing needs and desires, even while leaving the grandparents as simple monsters.

Great writing, but in service to what? I know the book has gotten some rave reviews. I thought the best parts were of Teddy’s wartime experiences. The other sections gave me that sensation of chess pieces being cleverly—if somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A God in Ruins, like its companion novel, seems more like an intellectual exercise than a novel. Still, it’s a wonderful title.

Have you ever chosen a book primarily because of its title?

Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

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I like to read stories about ordinary lives, so I looked forward to this novel by Tessa Hadley. In ten discrete chapters, we experience the life of an ordinary Englishwoman named Stella from childhood to middle age. Written in the first person, we see Stella’s life as she sees it: her experience of the events of the last half of the 20th century.

Hadley beautifully captures what life was like during that turbulent time: we get Stella’s teenaged rebellion of embracing punk culture with her androgynous boyfriend Valentine, and later her avoiding the arguments about politics in her commune, and so on to the end of the century. Hadley also shines at using quick, precise details to capture a person, place or thing. When she finds buttons at an old bombsite, they are “a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.” Of Stella’s grandmother, she says:

She bought her clothes from the children’s department (cheaper), and went to the hairdresser’s every week to have her hair set in skimpy grey-brown rolls pinned to her scalp: not out of vanity, but as if it was her duty to submit to this punishing routine.

As writers, we’re told that the first page of your novel should not only grab the reader but also introduce the main character, the time and place, the main character’s goal, and a hint at who or what might stand in the way of achieving it. Looking at this novel’s first page, we can confidently check off a few items. Our narrator is a child living alone with her mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, though only later do we find out they are in Bristol. She and her mother get along well, sharing the same tastes.

The first paragraph is about Stella’s missing father, “unpoetically” named Bert. Her mother says that he is dead but in the same sentence we are told that “I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.” As it turns out, this undercutting of Stella’s present-day experience by the interjection of knowledge acquired in the future will continue throughout the book. As a result, there is little suspense. We know, for example, who will die before the scene plays out.

Another aspect of this paragraph gave me a qualm. It seems to indicate that the book is going to be about how Stella’s life is shaped by a man. Sadly, that turns out to be true. Each chapter is focused on a man who changes Stella’s life. The only references to the women’s movement of the seventies come from an intense lesbian at Stella’s commune.

What about Stella’s goal? A structural difficulty with starting the book with her as a child is that children rarely can articulate a goal that will carry through their lives into middle-age, but even within each chapter she doesn’t seem to have a goal. We have the clue of the title. There is this sentence on the first page about her father having absconded rather than died: “I should have guessed this—should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.” From these slight tokens, I guessed that Stella’s goal through the book would be to grow into her cleverness. Accurate enough, as it turns out, though references to it are few and overwhelmed by the drama of deaths and dirty dishes and diaper pails. The rare times she mentions something related to her emerging intelligence (“cleverness” is pejorative and somewhat demeaning to me, but means something different in England) I began to be interested, but it didn’t last long.

The book would have been a lot stronger if this goal—or any purpose on Stella’s part—had been sharpened and used to tie the incidents together. Without it, the book is not so much a story as a hodgepodge of happenings.

For what might stand in her way, we have this sentence about things that were powerful at that time: “shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.” As it turns out, what stands in her way are her abrupt changes of direction, the consequences of her decisions or more often non-decisions. I can see where these could be a result of that fear. She even says at one point that “I couldn’t bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.” Even at the end she says, “I still feel sometimes as if I’m running away, escaping from something coming up behind me.”

I’m confident that Stella’s fears, sudden changes of direction, and concealed cleverness, not to mention her way of letting men define her life, accurately reflect the lives of many women. However, I found myself observing her from a distance; I did not care what happened to her. Perhaps that’s because I found little to admire in her. And oddly, she always fell on her feet. As a single mother myself, I found it unrealistic that she always found someone willing to take care of her and her children.

Other roadblocks also magically melted away: for example, she suffered no teenaged angst because she had the perfect boyfriend; the woman who learned her husband was having an affair with Stella immediately volunteered to give him up so they could be happy; plus the wife’s children showed no resentment towards Stella for breaking up their family. Since Stella didn’t have to struggle to overcome her obstacles, the story lacked drama and I couldn’t muster any concern for her.

The lack of suspense bored me. Things certainly happened to her (She says, “I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life.”), but without any buildup to them, there was no tension. She would also change direction with no warning, such as when from one sentence to the next she loses interest in the university degree she’d spent pages acquiring and heads off in another path. Without foreshadowing or dramatic tension, these events coming from out of the blue don’t create the kind of narrative I expect from a novel. The book feels like a random collection of incidents. Life can be like that, but it doesn’t make for an interesting book.

One friend who liked the book a lot said that it was the story of a person who floated through life, letting things happen to her, and didn’t live up to her potential. She added that it was an important book because many people don’t live up to her potential. That may be true, but doesn’t make it a compelling story. Another friend pointed out that nothing that happened to Stella changed her; she didn’t grow or become wiser, so she still sounded child-like as she aged.

I don’t mean to be overly negative. There are many things to like about this book: the novel-in-stories aspect, the evocative images and wordplay, the recognition when you stumble across things from your own past. One friend said that recognising so many incidents made her feel as though she were reading the story of her own life. Adding something to be achieved and suspense over how that might happen would make this an excellent novel. Even an ordinary life can be a good story.

What does the first page of the novel you are reading tell you about the rest of the book?

Heart Mountain, by Gretel Ehrlich

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February 19 is the anniversary of the day FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which took over 11,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans from their homes and businesses and sent them to concentration camps for the duration of WWII. One of those was the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming. Ehrlich’s novel is based on these true events. She imagines—based on her research—what life must have been like for those in the camp and those in the surrounding communities.

McKay is a young man whose ranch borders the camp. A serious injury from a “horse accident” prevented him from following his two older brothers into the military. Like Testament of Youth, this is a story of those who didn’t go to war. McKay is left to run the ranch with only the help of an older alcoholic cowboy named Pinkey and the long-time family cook, Bobby Korematsu. On the day his brothers leave, McKay sets up a cot on a screened porch and proceeds to sleep there through the blistering summers and harsh Wyoming winters.

Ehrlich brings her personal knowledge of ranching near Heart Mountain to make it all come alive, not just the way the grass looks in August or the river in flood, but the details of cow camps and moving the cattle when it snows, even the way the men and women talk to each other, a careful reticence masking deep emotion.

McKay rode out through the west pasture, roping, doctoring, and ear-tagging calves. He and his brothers had always loved these early spring days “when a man could get a rope down and let his horse run awhile.” When he finished, he rode to the river. Overhead the clouds looked more like waves, the kind of waves that come toward shore but never break, whose cresting swells suddenly flatten and return to deeper water. He thought he had reached the bottom of his loneliness, but now another depth revealed itself—one that he could not push beyond and as he approached the river, orange and scarlet clouds traveled over him without breaking.

I’m grateful to my friend Laura for recommending Ehrlich’s work.

The story also follows Kai Nakamura, a young graduate student from San Francisco who is swept up and deposited at the camp along with his parents, from whom he’d been estranged. The dislocation only tightens his parents’ grip on the old-fashioned ideas they brought with them from Japan, making Kai seek out others. In the camp he meets Mariko, a beautiful and outspoken artist newly returned from Paris, and her grandfather, Mr. Abe, a Noh mask carver who tries to teach Kai some of his zen habits.

The two groups are brought together when Bobby goes to the camp looking for relatives and later when McKay accidentally shoots Mr. Abe. It is this uneasy meeting ground, the space between the camp’s prisoners and the surrounding community that the novel explores, mostly by following McKay and Kai, but also through other inhabitants of both sides of the fence. While there is some intolerance, the characters we follow are thinking more deeply about what it means to be human and about what connects and separates us.

They stood in the V where two creeks met. A kingfisher, perched on a branch, dove into the water and came out again, as if untouched, unscathed. She looked at McKay. In his eyes, slabs of gray were cut into the blue. It’s the kind of imperfection Japanese love, a sign of beauty, she thought, smiling, and grabbed him around the waist.

“Your bones are so light. I always forget that,” he said, touching her wrist. “Like a bird’s.”

They heard flapping and laughed. Upstream and around a bend, a blue heron lifted into sight and flew behind a screen of willows.

Ehrlich uses every small moment, every brief image, every cloud and bird, to deepen her story and bring us more thoroughly into the hearts and minds of these brave, flawed people, thrown together by history and a disgraceful action by a government newly at war. FDR was persuaded by the mob’s fearful cries, but Ehrlich shows us, one person at a time, what happens when we see each other as individuals.

Have you read any other books about the relocation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans to camps during WWII?

The Opposing Shore, by Julien Gracq

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There’s an ongoing debate among book folks about literary versus genre fiction. Some people complain that literary fiction indulges a love of language at the expense of plot, leading to boring tomes with beautiful sentences and striking imagery but where nothing happens. Others complain that genre fiction is mindless entertainment, bound by strict genre rules, with little intelligent content.

Still others—people like me—really only want stories. Lists of books I’ve loved inevitably include both literary and genre fiction. I’ve loved books from most genres, primarily mystery, science fiction and fantasy. And I’ve loved plenty of literary novels, yes, even Henry James and William Faulkner with their sentences that go on forever.

My favorite books are set apart by their absorbing stories. What makes a story absorbing? As you can probably guess, the answer touches the basic elements of fiction: complex characters, good plot structure, a pleasing facility with language, and a well-integrated theme. I’ll abandon literary novels with gorgeous language but no plot just as fast as a genre novel with one-dimensional characters.

But there are exceptions.

Oh, there is a plot in Gracq’s award-winning novel. Aldo, scion of an elite family lives a life of heedless pleasure in the capital of the mythical island nation of Orsenna. The ancient culture has grown stale and tired, silted up with now-empty rituals. The aristocrats who run the nation are just going through the motions that previous generations have formalised. Years of peace and plenty mean that only the elderly attain posts in the government, leaving young people little to do once they finish school.

Aldo’s hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by a call to do his military service. He is sent to the ancient outpost of Syrtes as an observer. He finds a rundown naval base where the handful of officers spend their days hunting and the soldiers are rented out to nearby farmers. Although Syrtes is the first defense against Farghestan, the country on the mainland with whom Orsenna has been at war for three hundred years, the war has been dormant for so long that it seems only a rumor from the past.

Plunged into this damp miasma of empty days where everyone goes through the ancient rituals without believing that they are needed anymore, Aldo catches glimpses of ancient glory. And, as the observer, he begins to hear whispers. Strange encounters start to build a sense of impending action, action that calls to the young Aldo, whose impatience to do something, anything, is growing.

Marino, who commands the base, tells him, “‘Like you, I used to think something extraordinary had to happen to me. I believed it was my fate. You’ll grow old, just as I have, Aldo, and you’ll understand. Extraordinary things don’t happen. Nothing happens.’”

It’s an unusual and intriguing theme: transgression, even destruction, as a way of breaking out of stasis, a way to finally feel alive and that your life has meaning.

I should have been dismayed by how slowly this story, told through Aldo’s consciousness, develops. The inertia confining him and his culture is reflected in the story’s pace. It only begins to disperse further in. Yet far from being bored, I was captivated. Why? Because of the language.

Gracq’s sentences are packed with fresh and startling images that made me gasp with recognition and pleasure. The sometimes dense paragraphs reward close attention by vividly bringing to life not just the physical environment, but the feel of the place, as well as the twists and turns of Aldo’s thoughts and emotions and understanding. I felt that I lived this story, with an intensity I’ve rarely experienced.

Although published in 1986, the story has much to say to our current Western culture, where entertainment has pushed aside information in much of our media, as well as in other present-day cultures where young people are pushing aside the shell of the past and struggling to remake their worlds, for better or worse.

What book are you ending the year with?

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan

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O’Nan is one of my favorite writers, for his appreciation of and immersion in his characters, however humdrum or exciting their lives might be. Here, we inhabit Emily Maxwell, an elderly woman living out the tail end of her life in the modest home in a Pittsburgh suburb, the one she’d shared it with her husband Henry until his death. Her friends are also dying off, leaving her with her brash sister-in-law Arlene as her regular companion for breakfast buffets and conversations about the grown children. Alone at home besides her elderly dog, Emily makes an elaborate routine out of her regular chores.

Emily relies on Arlene’s driving which, if shaky, is better than her own. However, all of Emily’s arrangements are thrown into disarray when Arlene faints in a restaurant. Not only does she have to drive Arlene’s car, but she has to navigate the hospital and run errands for Arlene. As her confidence blossoms, she buys a small car and, little by little, begins to expand her world.

I love how O’Nan uses specific details to bring a memory to life and then submerges you in Emily’s reactions and emotions. Here, she is recalling a birthday dinner for her daughter, Margaret, at the country club Henry had introduced her to:

It must have been forty-five years ago, because Margaret was slim as a ballerina in her pinafore, curtseying to everyone for the fun of it. Emily’s own parents were there, a rare occasion, her father gawking in his cheap brown suit, impressed by the high windows and the murals on the ballroom’s ceiling, the white-gloved waiters circulating between tables to deliver iced pats of butter stamped with the club crest. Emily would have arranged for Margaret to have her favorite–yellow cake with chocolate icing–and Henry would have paid by signing his name. Forty-five years.

She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present . If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.

This 2011 novel is a sequel to Wish You Were Here which I read in 2007. I have to admit I don’t remember much of it beyond the characters’ names, the premise of the story and how much I liked it. Liked it? I was buried in it.

I came to this one with some apprehension. Though younger than Emily, I know what it is to live alone once children are grown and gone. I know what it is to have to create a life almost from scratch once work and family fall away, how to find new routines and habits. But once engaged in the story, I thought mostly of my mother, how she sat alone in her townhouse for years until, over her vociferous protests, we persuaded her to move to a comprehensive care facility. She bloomed there, making friends, taking up water-color and quilting.

As Emily blooms here. Although I’m not there myself yet, I believe O’Nan captures the inner life of an elderly woman, moving through her days accompanied by memories of the past, finding ways however unexpected to be in the present and look forward to the future. I enjoyed spending time with Emily. I saw much of myself in her and the potential for more. I especially loved her conversations with her dog, Rufus. She calls him Mr. Feisty, Mr. Excitable, Mr. Pork Pie, and Chubbers McBubbers. They share the same difficulties moving around, taking multiple medications. They remind me of my conversations with my little cat, the Love Bug.

I’m not exactly looking forward to aging, though of course it’s better than the alternative, but Emily’s story helps me prepare myself for times to come, and more patiently appreciate those who are there now.

What books about aging and loneliness have you read?

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

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This is one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Sure, there are beautiful sentences and sentences whose intelligence, perception, and depth of emotion require no ornamentation. There are quick, deft depictions of character, such as this one of our narrator, Hans:

“Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Van der Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

“I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

Boy, are there characters. Chuck hails from Trinidad but is 100% American, with his handful of shady businesses, his huge appetite for life, and his outsize dream of saving the world by establishing a cricket club in an abandoned field on the edge of the city. Through him, Hans meets and becomes a part of a subculture of cricket clubs, made up of émigrés, himself the only white one.

Much as I appreciated the writing—more about that later—I have to admit that I was bored. So much so that about halfway through I set the book aside for two weeks, and debated whether to finish it or not. First off, I don’t share the fascination those who live or have lived in New York seem to have for novels about what it’s like to live in that city. Surely they know already. I am more fascinated by The Hague and deeply enjoyed the brief flashbacks to Hans’s youth. I was also fascinated by his enigmatic mother, by far the most interesting character to me, though barely present.

Secondly, the plot is not an attention-grabber. We learn in the first few pages that Chuck’s body has been found in a canal and that Hans and his wife have been estranged but are now back together. The exploration of cricket and Chuck’s world are somewhat interesting, but the story of yet another middle-aged man, estranged from his life and feeling disconnected from his fellow humans doesn’t excite me. At least there are those beautiful and penetrating sentences.

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

A little background: Hans, who grew up in The Hague and lived in London before moving to New York, is a successful equities analyst for a large bank. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, he and his wife and young son take up temporary abode in the Chelsea Hotel. The dislocation and the danger prompt Rachel to take the child and move back to London. Her refusal to let Hans come with them signals her intent to end the marriage.

If this almost casual use of the 2001 attacks is one of the successes of the novel—for once they are not used to ratchet up drama and sentiment—Rachel is one of its failures. Presented as active in contrast to Hans’s passivity, she is a mass of unexplained contradictions, secrets, and sometimes seemingly random decisions. While such a depiction makes sense given that we are being told the story by the mystified, miserable, and angry Hans, it turns Rachel into a chesspiece designed to move the story along rather than a person.

I liked the depiction of the fellowship Hans forms with his fellow cricketers, the way they watch out for each other even though their lives only intersect in this one area. I was not particularly charmed by Chuck, whom some reviewers have compared to Gatsby, and questioned why Hans became so involved with him. I derived some amusement from random oddball characters—no, I don’t want to give them away—but after living in Baltimore, they seemed mild to me.

I’m left with the beautiful and unexpected passages, such as this one:

The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men, almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pajama’d reflection in a windowpane.

I appreciate the transnational perspective brought by O’Neill, who is of Irish and Turkish descent, grew up in The Netherlands, and now lives in the U.S. His memoir, Blood-Dark Track, should prove interesting.

Have you ever set a book aside for a few weeks and then gone back to it? What did you end up thinking about it?

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

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I like to read biographies of authors. When the biography is as good as this one, I like to stop and read the author’s books just before they are discussed. Yes, the works stand alone; you don’t need to know details of the author’s life to appreciate them. But as a writer, I am curious about how her experiences shaped the author’s perspective and choices.

I’ve been particularly curious about Penelope Fitzgerald for two reasons: I’ve loved her novels, and she was 60 years old when her first novel was published. She did publish two nonfiction books, one when she was 58 and the other the same year as her first novel. I wondered how her life story meshed with the stories described so vividly in Tillie Olsen’s Silences.

Indeed, it does. While working at the BBC during WWII, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she’d met at Oxford. Within six months, he’d been sent to North Africa with the Irish Guards. Like so many soldiers, he returned damaged in ways less visible than a missing leg. His misadventures meant that the family lived in poverty, even being homeless for a while before gratefully moving into a council flat. Working to support the family and raise her children left Fitzgerald little time for writing, but she was storing up ideas and experiences that enabled her to produce nine novels and three biographies in just 20 years.

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. Lee incorporates excerpts from Fitzgerald’s speeches and writings: letters, reviews, essays. Without being didactive, she suggests places in the novels where Fitzgerald made use of her experiences. Fitzgerald’s first five novels draw on her own past, but even the later novels reveal traces of past preoccupations and concerns.

Lee gives us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer. For example, knowing that her beloved father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, wrote for Punch, adds a new perspective to her brisk, humorous prose. Her father and his siblings provided a rich, if unusual, environment for the young writer.

In talking about the novels, Lee traces some common threads, such as, “Bourne-Jones attracted her, too, because she felt a strong imaginative pull towards characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Her own experiences enabled her to sympathise with such characters. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

In her later works, she experimented with an impressionistic style, putting together fragments that push the reader to actively engage with the story. This style is most effectively used in The Blue Flower, her story based on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. It is especially effective because it mirrors his own style. In an early notebook, Fitzgerald wrote, “Novalis wrote: One can imagine stories which have no coherence, but only association of events, like dreams, or poems which at most have single verses which can be understood, like fragments of the most various objects.”

Lee pins down another aspect of this novel, saying, “she has been thinking all her writing life about the relation between biography, history and fiction. Now she merges the genres to create a new kind of book.”

What most impressed me in this account of Fitzgerald’s life and work was the incredible amount of research she did for each book, not just for the biographies, but for each novel as well. For Beginning of Spring, for example, Lee says, “there is a great deal of homework in her notebooks on printing works, alongside notes on merchants, railway stations, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms.” Some extensive reading may only be come a detail, such as the sandstone towers of a market in Moscow.

For me, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

What biography have you read recently that gave you new insight?