Ragnarök, by A. S. Byatt

This book is a poetic and lyrical retelling of the greatest of Norse myths, Ragnarök, the end of the world and the destruction of the gods. It is powerfully told by Byatt, interwoven with the reaction of a young child evacuated to the countryside during the second world war. This ‘thin child’ is undoubtedly Byatt herself, and the child’s interpretations are the author’s voice leading the reader through the narrative, inviting comparisons to our own world, past and present. The fascination the child has for the brutal world of Norse myth is understandable, given the constancy of the war in which she lived, but there is also an underlying rationality for the draw of Norse myth – as Byatt points out, the brutality is more normal than the carefully depicted stories she is taught at Sunday school, with gentle rabbits crowding around a benevolent Christ. The behaviour of the Norse gods is inherently human: short-sighted, self-centred, uncontrollable.

Byatt is arguing that the Norse myth can be compared to a Christian myth, and her anger at the rebirth myth of life beyond Ragnarök is clearly explained as due to contamination by Christian thought. Many lovers of Norse myth might think otherwise, however – it is difficult to accept that the players of these stories come unavoidably to a final end. The ‘thin child’ is also surprised to discover her father returning from the war, when she had been convinced that he would not return – and although she is happy that he has returned, the conviction that he would not seems to indicate her total absorption in the Norse myth, and an obsession with the end of all things. Conversely her thoughts on the wild plants of the countryside seem to indicate an awareness of life beyond her own death. However, the beautiful description of England’s countryside and the meadow across which the thin child walks serves as a stark warning to the modern-day reader, because green spaces are now being destroyed, just as the beautiful eco-systems of Yggdrasil and Randrasill were destroyed by the wrath of Jörmungandr and the harshness of the Fimbulwinter.

While the re-setting of the tale through the mind of the ‘thin child’ does undoubtedly add something to the narrative and roots the retelling in our world, making it relevant, even important, The enchantment of Byatt’s Ragnarök lies in the language. In particular the description of Jörmungandr’s exploration of the world’s seas is astoundingly vivid, rich and atmospheric. Overall this book is a valuable interpretation of the Norse myth, wonderfully crafted but also with interesting insights – such as the cunning and clever god Loki’s fascination with all things chaotic, a point towards to modern Chaos Theory. Even with chaos in the Norse myth, the inevitability of Ragnarök is unchallenged in the minds of Loki and his tormentors. The losses endured by the powerful gods are unavoidable. Loss in our own world is also unavoidable, as humanity seems destined to create tragedy after tragedy through short-sightedness. Looking beyond the myth, Ragnarök could serve as a warning to us all to treat all things with respect, to look at things in the long-term, and to conserve what beauty we have in the world, before it is irrevocably lost.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This novel by Atkinson is a literary feat. Its main character, Ursula Todd, does not only live once or twice but repeatedly, as a succession of accidental deaths claims her life in numerous scenarios, some the same, some different. This allows the author to explore her character in a vast range of situations, which is a delight to read, especially when viewing the contrast between Ursula as a young mother in Germany, as a desperate alcoholic living alone in London, as a battered wife, and as a warden during the Blitz. It is interesting to see how Atkinson modifies the course of Ursula’s life by changing miniscule things, such as the way Ursula decides to walk home, or whether she leaves a particular doll lying about.

The book begins with Ursula in Germany, calmly upon a mission to kill somebody, with the enigmatic utterance of “Führer, fur Sie.” Darkness falls as death claims her, and the next chapter recounts Ursula’s birth. In what seems to be her first ‘attempt’ at life she dies immediately, but she survives in the subsequent chapter, and thus the premise of the novel is introduced. Throughout her childhood countless accidents lead to her death, and as Ursula begins to be aware of this peculiar sense of déjà vu and foreboding, she attempts to modify the situations for the better.

During the course of the novel we are given snapshots of the world during the last century, glimpses into people’s lives, all from the same character’s perspective – except that she is not essentially the same person. One strength of the novel is that it allows us to recognise people Ursula has known in a previous life, but through her eyes when she has not in fact met them at all during her current life. It creates an interesting dichotomy whereby at some points in the novel the reader is left clueless, and at others we know more than Ursula does.

This is a well-written and beautifully conceived book, whose main character holds the right amount of fascination, and manages to remain herself despite her wildly different lives. However, the overall conceit is a struggle to grasp, and the idea that there is a ‘right’ way of living is ultimately flawed. What does the repeated cycle of Ursula’s lives mean for her – and for us? Although towards the end of the novel she is becoming more ‘successful’ at living, it is not made clear how this benefits her. The age old phrase ‘History repeats itself because nobody was listening the first time’ suggests that because Ursula was listening she has irrevocably saved the world. But death still condemns her to repeat it. What will happen when old age claims Ursula’s life – is she condemned to live it all over again? All this said, it is a very good sign when a book prompts in-depth discussion of its ideas, and this would certainly be an excellent choice for a Book Group.