Imagine someone writing the novel described in Borges' Garden of Forking Paths. You lead a hundred different lives in parallel.
You're born, and then you die. You're born again, and then you die again, after ticking off a few more minutes of your lifeline. By the time you've met your hundredth death, you're old enough to understand what's about to happen. You may not always interpret the signs correctly this time, but you'll learn. Sometimes you learn when the wrong person dies. But at least you get another chance.
Our heroine, Ursula Todd, is duly plagued, which results in her taking on multiple fates, each of them tiny microcosms of the human experience: so much horror, so many delights. It's not so simple as Sliding Doors, we follow her through two wars, and many traps lie afoot. Some of her worst experiences have nothing to do with the war. Humanity's usually its own worst enemy, whether you're in bucolic England or in mid-war Germany.
These are difficult themes to maintain, and I'm still impressed at what control Atkinson held. Astonishingly, even through reset after reset, there are character through-lines that remain both consistent and heart-breaking. The lines around Ursula's life are so beautifully colored in that the reader can dive easily into each new storyline, at least once you get used to the conceit.
"Darkness falls, and so on."
But what will probably stay in my mind, once all the timey-wimey trickery fades into the distance, are visions of a ravaged London, a London so thoroughly decimated that the descriptions read like science fiction or dystopia.
She was cold. The water she was lying in was making her even colder. She needed to move. Could she move? Apparently not. How long had she been lying here? Ten minutes? Ten years? Time had ceased. Everything seemed to have ceased. Only the awful concoction of smells remained. She was in the cellar. She knew that because she could see Bubbles, still miraculously taped to a sandbag near her head. Was she going to die looking at this banality? Then banality seemed suddenly welcome as a ghastly vision appeared at her side. A terribly ghost, black eyes in a grey face and wild hair, was clawing at her. 'Have you seen my baby?' the ghost said It took Ursula a few moments to realize that this was no ghost. It was Mrs. Appleyard, her face covered in dirt and bomb dust and streaked with blood and tears. 'Have you seen my baby?' she said again.
This London remains stuck in history. The art of the time had strict rules, propagandic overtures that wouldn't bear any mention of the idea that the British were so badly beaten down during the war.
You find this struggle most baldly acknowledged in the stranges of places: Gracie Fields comedies and in Powell and Pressburger's delicious allegories, especially in Black Narcissus. Just as Deborah Kerr's nun struggles against poverty, illness, crumbling infrastructure and burning desire in the remote Himalayas, millions of Brits struggled with the same at home. But one could never admit that; the Dunkirk spirit held its sway. Only in photography could you find the reality; was photography even considered an art then, or just documentation?
Poetry and the visual arts gave way to the abstract; the human eye and the human heart were incapable, then, of processing the horror of being in constant danger of annihilation. Atkinson's choice, then, to draw out this most troubled time, to realize it in words, strikes you in the heart.
A woman wearing a mink coat had come out of the entrance to the Savoy, on the arm of a rather elegant man. The woman was laughing in a carefree way at something the man had just said but then she broke away from his arm to search in her handbag for her purse in order to drop a handful of coins into the bowl of an ex-soldier who was sitting on the pavement. The man had no legs and was perched on some kind of makeshift wooden trolley. Ursula had seen another limbless man on a similar contraption outside Marylebone station. Indeed, the more she had looked on the London streets, the more amputees she had seen.
A doorman from the hotel darted out of Savoy Court and advanced on the legless man, who quickly scooted away using his hands as oars on the pavement.
And so I found, not an answer, but at least an understanding of something that plagued me when I lived in London, wandering the streets and pondering the crazy mess of buildings that huddle up into some kind of city. When so much of the city is destroyed, why wouldn't you build it to plan for the future? Even after WWII, urbanization became apparent. Someone made the choice to rebuild so many devastated buildings as exact replicas of what they used to be, instead of acknowledging survival and moving on into the (somewhat) brighter future.
A partial explanation ties directly into the novel; you can't see into the future, and no matter what you do, you're always trapped by your past. If only we all had the opportunity to direct our own garden of forking paths.