Ursula, Under is a beautiful story – it’s a warm-hearted book and each stage of the story is breath-taking. The premise is that Ursula Wong is a two year-old girl out for the day with her family. She runs ahead of them when they stop for a picnic and falls down an abandoned mine shaft. Her frantic parents wait in agony by the side of the shaft while rescue crews work through the night to determine the best way to rescue the child from the hole. An alcoholic socialite watches the proceedings on the television and remarks that this is a whole lot of fuss and money for a ‘half-breed trailer trash kid’. In response, Ingrid Hill has the rest of the book – in alternate chapters she charts not only the progress of the rescue but also Ursula’s family history. Half-Finnish and half-Chinese, Ursula has a wealth of history behind her and she is the last of her line.
Part fairy story, part rescue story, this book is in many ways a collection of short stories; tales from Ursula’s family history start with The Alchemist’s Last Concubine and end with The Woman who Married the Baker’s Friend, each story different and each one perfect as a stand-alone piece. I read this before I read anything by A.S. Byatt but the images within the writing are similar to a lot of her fairy tale work. Beautiful descriptive passages which I can still remember quite vividly seven years after I finished it. Hill does a wonderful job at making the reader care about all of these individual characters whilst also never letting us forget about the drama which is holding it altogether; Ursula’s rescue. The blend of past and present is a big part of what makes this book so special; although Ursula and her parents are unaware about their heritage, these are the people who have made them who they are. The more the story goes on, the more we realise just how precious Ursula is; if that little girl dies, then the stories die with her.
Even without the collection of stories from her past, Ursula Wong would still be a very well-loved child; she is one of those rarest things in fiction – an intelligent child who is not a brat. I loved the passages where she got to speak. Spoilers! When she is talking over the walkie-talkie to her mother during her rescue, I loved how well Hill had written a believable toddler who is briskly dismissive of her situation and sing-songing her bedtime stories back to Annie. The family bonds between Justin, Annie and Ursula are fierce and powerful – I particularly liked that the librarian on crutches Got the Guy. Still with Annie’s disability, Ursula is the only child that they will ever have – at one point Justin’s mother Mindy Ji prays to God to save Ursula because after all they have ‘only this one little one’. Everything that came before is in this little girl, she is their miracle.
Ursula, Under celebrates the family in its multitude of variations – there is Qin Lao the aged single father, Kyllikki and Olavi the deaf couple, Ming Tao the single/virgin mother, Violeta of the many mothers, the winding descendants of Chen Bing and Marjatta, who marries the baker’s friend after her ‘real’ husband dies young. This is not a book celebrating the nuclear family, it is about loving the people you have in your lives. One of my absolute favourite parts of the book was at the end when Mindy Ji has a vision of Ursula’s ancestors, whose ‘blood and lives went into this little girl’, and amongst them is Oscar Lucassen, no blood relative but still the man who brought up Violeta’s son, because ‘he belongs’. I have always believed that there is more to family than blood, I loved seeing that played out on a spiritual level too. Of course, Oscar belongs with the rest of them, he gave his life to the protection of Ursula’s line, he cares for her no less than any of the others.
In lots of ways, this book is a kind of wish-fulfilment – we all want to believe that we have a glittering family history no matter how humble our origins. I have always found my own family’s back story fascinating – I think it’s not news for me to say that I love stories – and I liked that even along the way of the story, Hill pointed out other brief snippets about family members. I think that we all dream of being remembered, that we will lead lives that will in some way be worth speaking of after they have ended. Ursula, Under states that we all do, in our own way. Even Chen Bing, who is killed by a snail and whose corpse is found missing his trousers is an important part of Ursula’s history.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect book. Parts of the opening are a bit twee, my mother read it and spat feathers over faults in the timeline (it’s her pet peeve). The character of Jinx was a bit of an irritation for me – the name signposted a little too heavily that she was the bad fairy presence in the family’s life. From the fact that the sight of her naked form once nearly killed Justin, to when she maimed Annie as a child, one of her lesser offences was commenting to the TV that perhaps Ursula was not worth saving – yet still, this entire book proves her wrong. She didn’t quite work for me as a character, although Hill seems to imply that Jinx gets her comeuppance at the end – I just didn’t care about her particularly. I wished her neither good nor ill, the fact was that the family story was so powerful that as a sub-plot so Jinx was a non-starter. I would have liked to hear more and Annie’s mother though – did she die by Garret’s hand or not?
But yes, basically, this is one of my absolute favourite books ever. The idea is one that I have always found fascinating, the stories of our ancestors, but it is the execution and the fine detail that make this one of the few books that travel with me where ever I go … most of my Completed Reads live at my parents’ house awaiting the day when I have a House Of My Own to store them. Ursula, Under however, always stays with me.
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Published by Random House on 2005
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