05 August 2010

Ursula, under

I've just finished what is, for me, an unusual thing: reading a book over a period of a month. I usually read fast and intensely, but something about Ursula, under made me read each separate small component, stop, think about it, and continue later. The structure of the book, I feel, encourages this: it is one of those fictions where a top level story acts as a container within which are played out a string of other stories.

The outer container, in this case, is a rescue drama: the Ursula of the title is three years old, and during a family picnic in the Michigan countryside she falls down a mine shaft. While her mother (Annie) waits beside the hole which has swallowed her daughter, the father (Justin) drives away to call for help. Hours go by, as the elements of a rescue attempt are assembled1.

The mother, left alone to worry by the shaft, tries to keep her mind from dwelling on immediate fears by thinking of the miracle of life. From this flows, for the reader, a pair of story streams reflecting the genetic lines which led to Ursula's birth. On Justine's side, the story starts two millennia before, with unexpected birth of a child to a previously barren Chinese alchemist in his old age. In Annie's history a deaf mute woman in south western Finland, who expects never to marry, meets a deaf mute trader...

Down through the centuries, we see how each birth in the twin chains of heredity which led to Annie and Justin almost never happened. At intervals, we also see the smaller chains within their own lives which make their meeting, and Ursula's birth, unlikely in their turn. And within that, a string of "might have been" happenstance decides whether or not Ursula will survives her fall and the cold hours which follow2.

Annie and Justin know almost nothing of their ancestries. Like the ropes on which the rescuers descend into the darkness of the mineshaft towards where they hope Ursula will be, these strands of story snake down unseen through time to where she now hangs in the balance.

Ursula, under3 is (in my opinion) superb story telling at its best. And beautifully written; I could take examples from anywhere, but here is just one sentence:

"She's my grandchild," he says, and he heads out into the morning, which is pale lavender and pierced with scattered birdcalls.

Strongly and enthusiastically recommended.

1. As an aside ... I started reading Ursula, under on the same day that I read Unreal nature's "Miss Perception" post4. Never having called an emergency service in the US, I was interested in the difference which that post showed in US and European practice. This book synchronously provided me with a longer, more details ed look at those differences – many of which arise not only from different sociopolitical philosophies but also from differences of geography: what works in small geographies is different from what works in large ones.

2. Also during the time when I was reading Ursula, under, I chanced to have a conversation with JSBlog's Ray Girvan. Both of our fathers were unlikely survivors of the second world war; but, as Ray pointed out, once doesn't need to look at large and dramatic events to find many points in any of our lives when we might have met fatal mischance. Childhood illness which could have been worse, the moment when we almost, but not quite, stepped off the kerb in front of a bus. Only later did I connect that conversation with this book. The blunt fact is that every one of us is a statistically improbable event; this commonplace is at the same time both logically trivial and emotionally powerful.

3. The title, if you are wondering, is taken from the "U" entry in Ursula's favourite alphabet picture book. On page 1 is "Annie, All About", followed by "Betsy, Beneath the Bridge", "Camilla, Collecting"; and so on, page 21 being "Ursula, Under [the kitchen table]".

4. Placement of this aside in a footnote will, by the by, exasperate Unreal nature's Julie Heyward...

  • Ingrid Hill, Ursula, under. 2006, London: Vintage. 0099479869 or 9780099479864 (pbk.) [Originally 2004, Chapel Hill NC: Algonquin. 1565123883]


Julie Heyward said...

Just reading the words "she falls down a mine shaft" make me hyperventilate. Major phobia of mine.

As to 4., where the hell are my numbers, dern you? 9781906442040 or 1906442045
9781416555261 or 1416555269

Can't you run down to the tingly number store and get me one or two? (refrigerate after opening, and they should keep for a week or two)

Felix said...

Dear Ms H,

I fear that you were so busy hyperventilating that you missed not one but THREE tingly numbers which I already provided specifically for your delight and delectation. Breathe deeply into a paper bag until you feel crisper, then look below note 4 at the bibliographic reference which you will find contains:
-- 0099479869
-- 9780099479864
-- 1565123883

Dr. C said...

"Just reading the words "she falls down a mine shaft" make me hyperventilate. Major phobia of mine." Block that pun

Stepping off the curb in front of a bus (tram?) is a frequent cause of death for American tourists in England and Ireland. I almost saw my brother do that. If only they'd drive on the right side.