BOOKS: Modern Greek ; Carol Birch Finds Mirth among the Myths in These Updated Tales from the Ancient World
Birch, Carol, The Independent (London, England)
Not the End of the World
WHERE DOES ancient mythology fit into modern life? Is it confined to the stories we read, Disney's occasional gross foray, our Larousse encyclopaedias? Or can myth still break through, alive and well, hissing its Medusa breath and impregnating unsuspecting mortal women with litters of semi-divine hybrids? Again, if myths are going to intrude in graphic ways on our tediously familiar existences, why would we get those of Greece, Rome and Egypt? Why not those indigenous myths of these islands?
Maybe I'm being pedantic, but Kate Atkinson's new collection of 12 short stories mystifies me in a way she probably did not intend. This is definitely a concept album, interlinked by a wide net of connecting lives and situations a la Altman's Short Cuts. The link is classical myth. Spot the reference: Eos, Hera, the chariot of Hades. An office worker's head begins to hiss, a bed of snakes. The sensible leather boots of unconventional nanny Missy (Artemis; get it?) turn into silver sandals, while a quiver of silver arrows sprouts on her back. All this comes alongside bang-on contemporary references, from Slipknot to pot noodle to White Teeth. This is now. It is also, in spite of the title, clearly the end of the world, the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, and the meeting-point of all realities.
It's very clever, and Kate Atkinson is an erudite and interesting writer with a lovely turn of phrase. However, there are not many more than three or four good stories. In "Dissonance" and "Wedding Favours", we cringe along with the dysfunctional family, all ageing Sixties lefties and arrogant, foul-smelling kids.
"Sheer Big Waste of Love", the tale of Addison Fox, son of a prostitute dying of cancer, achieves rare moments of subtle poignancy and contains some typically resonant Atkinson prose that skilfully conjures mood and character: "The steel tips of his mother's stiletto heels made a brutish noise on the street . …