Kate Atkinson is, to my mind, one of the more undervalued writers of the last 25 years in English language fiction. Oh, sure, she has a big fan base in the UK in particular, and her books sell well, but her list of prizes and accolades is surprisingly short for a writer this good. The failure of the incredible Life After Life to even make the longlist for last year’s Man Booker is a case in point. It wasn’t that the Booker list last year was all that terrible – it was quite a good list, in fact, and reasonably diverse as such things go – but the omission of Life After Life, one of the strongest and best novels of the year, was at the least puzzling. (Of course, it did go on to win the Guardian Books’ Not the Booker Prize, but that’s not quite as prestigious!)
I was thinking about Atkinson’s work recently in the context of looking at literary and pop culture subversions of the trope of the primacy and essentiality of romantic love. It’s quite pervasive, this idea that romance and sex, either separately or together, are the motive force of every life. Of course, this comes in lots of flavours, from the thwarted to the desperate to the fulfilled to the transcendent to the tumultuous to the injurious, but underlying all of them is this essential idea: if life is a question, romantic love is the answer.
I realise that this trope works, as all tropes do, because it speaks to a common and powerful experience. Romantic love is a genuine game-changer in many people’s lives, and sex is a very powerful motivator for many as well. Reflecting these emotions and states can make for great literature and artistry, to which people can relate and with which they will engage.
However, I myself, a pragmatist of the first water for whom romantic love came as a great surprise and who is still, despite 16 lived years of it, unconvinced about its universality, find this cultural insistence on romantic love and pair bonding as The Only True Thing sometimes irritating. So I like nothing better than a well-constructed story that turns this on its head and suggests that love, and life, are not nearly so simple.
Atkinson is curiously good at this trick; every book of hers that I have read, and there are only two I haven’t, plays interesting games with the current cultural idea about what romantic love is, and what its actual importance might be in real people’s lives. Of course, people have sex … she seems to say musingly; yes, people want to feel connected, to be loved, but really … Each book tails off this but really in a different vein, but what unites all of them is a very definite rejection of the idea that romantic love is the only, or even most common, route to being loved and feeling connected. Not so, contends Atkinson; it’s in family that the soul is nourished and made new, as well as scored, scarred and broken. Sexual and romantic partners are shadows on a screen, in her worldview, passing puppets in comparison to the bedrock that is family.
So Atkinson is one of those writers who gets under my skin – in a good way – with her deep dives into familial relationships and what they mean. Her first novel, 1995’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is as engrossing a family saga as I have ever read. One of the things that makes it so engaging is the engine that drives its protagonist, Ruby Lennox – her complicated, often distorted, quite dysfunctional, but emotionally overpowering relationships with her mother and her sisters (also, albeit to a much lesser extent, her father).
The story arc reaches back in time long before Ruby’s birth, and carries into her middle age, but what links together all the mini-plots of sub-stories of this family drama is the power of family, and the relative unimportance, instability, shallow-rootedness and absurdity of sex (always) and romance (usually). People get married in their droves in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but the act of marriage is never represented as an act of romance, desire, passion or destiny; it’s often slavery, sometimes a pathway to a life of quiet desperation, and at its very best, it’s about adding a new link into the family chain, which grows heavier as the generations roll on. When married, characters’ spouses morph into a part of the story, and therefore take on gravitas, if they stick around, by virtue of being family, kin, not because of any love relationship that may once have existed but almost certainly doesn’t outlast the chapter.
Life After Life, while a very different book in many ways, also features a female protagonist, Ursula Todd, for whom romantic and sexual relationships, while not absent, are really nothing more than a distraction from the main emotional game of her lives. Ursula’s experiences, emotions and attachments revolve around her siblings primarily and her parents and aunt secondarily. She has sexual and romantic relationships of greater and lesser functionality and healthiness as the circumstances of her various lives dictate, but they never impinge on her inner self in the way that her bonds with Pammy, Teddy, father Hugh, mother Sylvie, and even her feckless aunt Isobel do.
It’s interesting to me, considering how clever and detailed Atkinson’s unpicking of family dynamics really is, that she has been the subject of such a strong anti reaction from many establishment figures, especially when Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread. In an interview in the Telegraph in 2004, Helen Brown reminds readers of the comments of Andrew Neill, who cited her win as “simply further confirmation of why the chattering classes deserve to be held in such contempt”. Atkinson’s reaction? “I think it was because I’m a woman… and people thought I was ‘anti-family'”.
I think I agree with her on both counts. It’s precisely because Atkinson is not interested in a triumphalist, eros-centred vision of the world, precisely because she presents a window into the complexity, strangeness and weirdness that is family, that she is both dismissed as being trivial and uneasily suspected of being a teller of uncomfortable truths. Talking about family as a closed system, entire unto itself, filled with mystery and majesty, is easily cast as a female preoccupation, if you accept that family is a merely domestic concern. (I don’t). Talking about family as an opaque crucible of pain and dysfunction is easily misrepresented as being anti-family, if you are unable or unwilling to recognise the nuances and the fascination in the story. What Atkinson brings to the table isn’t lightweight, because family isn’t, despite the domestication of it as a concept. What she writes about is life and how we live it.