Ursula, Under – its ups and its downs

Ursula, Under is the story of Ursula Wong, a young, half-Chinese, half-Finnish child who falls down an abandoned mine in the woods. As her distraught parents begin a mine-side vigil and the rescue teams pour in, Hill takes us back, way back, into Ursula’s family history. She is the last in her family line and we learn all about her rich history before we learn her fate.

I’m going to start by admitting, right now, that I’ve never been interested in genealogy. I’ve always been a bit mystified by those programs where people break down and weep upon discovering that their great-great-great-aunt was a geisha/criminal/street-sweeper. I find history interesting – especially the human side of it, but I don’t feel more interested in someone’s long-forgotten story if they share a bit of common blood with me. As far as that goes, I’d only be interested one generation back from a relative I actually knew in life. A great-grandmother – ok – let me enrich my understanding of my grandmother – but go back more than that and they’re a bunch of complete strangers! Ah well, that’s just me. If you do have an interest in that kind of connection you will probably take to this book a lot more readily than I did.

On the upside, Ingrid Hill’s writing is beautiful – she reminds me a lot of Pearl Buck – her style is very rich and very descriptive, even down to someone’s ‘spatulate’ fingernails. I like a good made-up word if it conjures something vivid and Hill does a lot of this – she has a true talent with the English language, which makes for a very picturesque read.

However, when it came to the book’s plot, there was something a little irritating about the way all these ancestors kept popping up out of nowhere – a Chinese alchemist, a Finnish foundling turned queen’s playmate turned exiled leper, a Jesuit tutor playing sperm donor to a disabled Chinese princess – there was something a little overwrought about the whole thing. On top of that, there was so much going on in every vignette that the book felt quite choppy.

No sooner had you gotten into one of the stories but you were whisked off elsewhere by Hill, perhaps to one of the less interesting cameos. I wanted to know about Ursula down the mine and, frankly, I got a bit peeved that the author kept trying to distract me with a load of shiny past-baubles! I guess it comes back to my distaste for the genealogy craze: even if Ursula has a Chinese alchemist in her history, what actual difference does that make? I can take an interest in her life on its own and I can take an interest in her ancestors’ lives individually, but the fact that they have a vague DNA connection doesn’t really make the story hang together – not for me anyway.

One thing I really did like, however, was Hill taking up the position of an omnipotent god and informing us what would have happened if this father had lived, or this accident hadn’t happened. Looking into what almost was really appealed to me. After all, history already gives us what was – authors are the only ones who can give us what might have otherwise been.

All in all, there are plenty of good things to say about this book. It’s beautifully written, it’s a rich tapestry of painstaking research and it has its compelling characters – especially in the more modern sections – but did I savour every page of it? I can’t say I did.

There’s something of The Children’s Book in Ursula, Under – in its epic scope and feel. If you loved The Children’s Book you will probably like this…but if you only read one, there’s no contest. Byatt’s epic weaves the stories of interconnected families and generations together, whereas Hill’s gives you one family’s selected history in fairly random stop-start chunks. I personally think that, given her considerable talents, Ingrid Hill could have done better.

Buy this book

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