Monday, 30 December 2013

Great Books of 2013: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Fourteen years into the 21st Century, it seems that some of the most interesting new work in historical fiction is concerned to make sense of the century that preceded it, from the perspective of our increasing distance. A frequently cited, if arbitrary, convention holds that any novel set sixty years or more before the time at which it was written counts as "historical fiction." That now includes both World Wars, and even the early stages of the Cold War. Writers of my generation and the next have the luxury of a backward glance that was denied to those who may have been considering their work in progress at the turn of 1913 and 1914.

Two of this year's releases seem to me to stand out as offering bold and refreshing new perspectives on the turbulent century that gave birth to us.

The first is Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (Doubleday), which follows the life (or lives) of Ursula Todd, born on a snowy evening in 1910.

Ursula undergoes a number of traumatic experiences, ranging from a complication at birth, through a childhood swimming accident and the Spanish Flu epidemic, to the London Blitz, any one of which could have claimed (or perhaps does claim) her life.

A mobile canteen in the London Blitz. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"Darkness falls" at the end of each of these episodes yet, in each case, this is followed by a revival of fortunes, a near-miraculous rescue or recovery, each one giving rise to a different set of choices and possibilities. She is given the chance to "live again," but not so much to learn from her mistakes as to explore, as none of us has the chance to explore in reality, the potential implications of alternative paths taken. Its true themes seem to me to be the contingency of history, and the role that chance plays in any human life, but, at each stage in the development of the narrative, one is so caught up in the story that its central conceit fades into the background, only to re-emerge when "darkness falls" again. It is the most thought-provoking novel I have read for some time, and probably the only one which manages to describe both the London Blitz and the Allied bombing of Berlin (in both cases meticulously researched) through the eyes of a single character.

Bomb damage in Berlin, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

The second is Meike Ziervogel's Magda (Salt), probably the bravest work of historical fiction I have ever read. Brave in that it takes, as its central character, the personality of Magda Goebbels.

Although German-born, Ziervogel has stated that this was a novel she could only have written in English, and it is, to my mind, inconceivable that such a novel could have been published twenty, or even ten, years ago. Perhaps the distance that makes it possible also makes a work (or works) such as this necessary? Joseph Goebbels and other members of the Nazi hierarchy have only very minor roles in the story, but Magda's viewpoint is not the only one we see.

The Goebbels family in 1942. Photo: Bundesarchive (image is in the Public Domain). Harald Quandt (in Luftwaffe uniform), Magda's son by an earlier marriage, was not actually present - his image was inserted later.

Her mother, interviewed by a Soviet officer in the aftermath of the war, comments on her childhood, whilst Magda's own daughter reveals her hopes, fears and naivety in the pages of a diary which reads, somehow, as a frighteningly distorted mirror-image of Anne Frank's. The novel does not attempt to make Magda Goebbels a truly sympathetic character, but it does seek to explore her psychology, the dynamics of her family, and the way in which dysfunctional relationships in one generation replicate and mutate in the next. The focus is very much on the personal rather than on the political, and is all the more disturbing by virtue of this.  Magda Goebbels may have been a monster, but here she is shown as a very ordinary, a very human monster, and most of us have met people (albeit in far less extraordinary circumstances) who are not so very different. "I was haunted by a recurring image," Ziervogel has said in an interview (, "a long, pitch-dark shaft, at the top of which I was hovering. I knew that I had to get down there, deep inside myself, to access a historical truth." It is certainly not a light read, but it is short, succinct, and as deeply memorable as it is profoundly humane.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. I have heard so much about Life After Life, and your review of it makes me want to read it for sure now. It's up at the top of my TBR list.

    Scary and sad about Magda Goebbels. The society itself that made for the rise of Nazism was so dysfunctional at the time. The implications are that it could happen anywhere under the right circumstances.

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. It probably could happen anywhere under the right circumstances, but the personal dimension is the most worrying dimension of all. Set Atkinson's insights alongside Ziervogel's (which I did here essentially by accident, although I did also read them quite close to each other) and one is left facing some really difficult questions.

  3. Magda Goebbels is one of history's truly evil characters. She murdered her six children because she didn't want them to live in a world without Socialism. Alas, if she only knew how Socialism would eventually sweep all of Western Civilization by the close of the 20th Century! To compare her daughter, a privileged Aryan, with Anne Frank, a Jew who is hunted down by the Nazis, is an extremely inappropriate historical distortion.