Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.
Goodreads description

What if we had a chance to do it again and again... until we finally got it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful? As a historian I often ask my self "what if "- it's the basis of alternative history novels. What if Hitler had been assassinated? What if the authorities had heeded the warnings of Pearl Harbor? On a personal level we take decisions every day, which could result in catastrophic outcomes for us or others, e.g. whether to cross a road. Kate Atkinson's latest book explores this brilliantly. Ursula dies and is born repeatedly throughout the novel. As a writer I constantly play with alternative outcomes with my plots and so I wondered whether Kate Atkinson was inspired by the writing process to do the same, but in a recent BBC interview she says not.

The recurrent death and rebirth theme changed how I reacted to the book. The first part of the book is made of many short chapters ending with the words Darkness fell indicating that Ursula has died again. I knew that Ursula would be reborn, so there wasn't the sense of engagement in Ursula's survival that there might have been. Instead I became interested in either how she would die this time or how she would evade death. And whilst I admired Atkinson's inventiveness, I found
the approach resulted in a detachment which worried me: it wasn't until the second third of the book that I really settled down and started to enjoy it.

The highlight for me was the section set in London during the Blitz. The approach absolutely fitted with the circumstances: in wartime London death was random and frequent and women's experiences expanded beyond the home. Through Ursula's several wartime lives, we are able to explore those experiences and the fate of more people than the heroine's - for example her younger brother Teddy. Atkinson doesn't pull any punches about the horrors of the Blitz - unidentifiable body parts shoveled up, a man who whose body came apart like a Christmas cracker. The repetition in this section takes on a poetic quality.

As an alternative to the Blitz story Atkinson places Ursula in Germany. This has two endings: in on Ursula shoots Hitler in 1930. This was the least credible storyline in the book. It appears at the beginning of the book, but isn't justified by what happens elsewhere and I think sets the reader off in the wrong direction. The other version of the story, in which Ursula is trapped in Berlin as it falls to the Russians, works well as a parallel to the story of the Blitz. 

Atkinson's writing is superb, at times poetic: Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
The strange repetitive structure allows the writer to tint descriptions of the mundane activities with added meaning, a foreshadowing of danger, something which is reflected in Ursula's increasing sense of deja vu. 

One of the things I loved about the book was Atkinson's portrayal of family life. It's good to read a book where the family members are normal, generally likeable people (with one exception). I would have liked to know more about Sylvie, Ursula's mother, and I am not surprised that Atkinson is considering writing a novel with Teddy as its central character.

So is this a magic realist book? If it weren't for Ursula's deja vu and her acting on it, then you could say the life after life approach was simply a literary device. But the deja vu introduces magic realism to the book and makes it better for that. There is an ambiguity within the book about the structure and central concept, which caused me problems when I tried to write this review. But ambiguity is central to magic realism and often causes problems for both the reader and the writer. 

Note: I received this book gratis from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review.

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