Kate Atkinson is one of Britain’s foremost literary novelists writing today – of this there is no doubt. Unlike many other writers of that rank, she doesn’t subject her fans to long waits between titles. Since her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year in 1995 she has consistently delivered a new book almost every two years. Life After Life marks a return to the standalone novel following the four-part series featuring police inspector turned private detective Jackson Brodie. Any disappointment felt by fans of Brodie at his absence is likely to be shortlived if they pick up the author’s latest offering.
The premise of Life After Life is a complex if not totally unfamiliar one: as the novel opens in February 1910 we are presented with two different accounts of protagonist Ursula Todd’s birth during a snowstorm. In one, the baby dies and in the other, she lives. This is the template for a pattern of alternative outcomes (sometimes more than two) repeated throughout the book. The structure works well as a means to explore ideas which are the subject of popular fascination in both fiction and film (think Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day): the role of fate and free will in determining the course of a life, and the inevitable What If? question:
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
As you might imagine, this makes it virtually impossible to attempt a synopsis of the story (unlike ruining it, which would be easy), so I’m going to concentrate on other interesting aspects of which there are many, especially for anyone who writes fiction. The novel spans the period 1910-1967 and Ursula’s third person narrative brings the major events of those years to life with extraordinary vividness. She is one of five children born to Hugh Todd and his brittle artistic wife Sylvie who live comfortably at Fox Corner, a house near Beaconsfield (26 miles NW of London). The family dynamics are very well drawn – especially where her sister Pamela and rebellious young aunt Izzie are concerned – and because their characters (if not their destinies) are less mutable than Ursula’s – of which more below – they lend necessary familiarity to what might otherwise have been a very confusing story. Complicating the timeline is one of the greatest risks a writer can take, although it’s not one Kate Atkinson needs to worry about.
It takes time to tune into the rhythm of the narrative, but once I did I found myself reading it for hours at a time, completely absorbed. Nobody who appreciates literary fiction would consider it hard work – in many ways it’s a delight, the dark subject matter notwithstanding – but this is a novel which both requires and rewards close reading. It is intensely satisfying to notice the ways the different versions of episodes in Ursula’s adult life resonate and bleed into each other: a small detail about a character may be revealed in one strand which the reader cannot un-know even when it remains unmentioned the next time that story comes around. There are places where prior knowledge creates an almost unbearable sense of foreboding.
Clever use of repetition helps to keep track of what’s happening, especially at the start of sections to alert the reader that a parallel version of something they’ve seen before is about to begin. Various phrases and images recur too: darkness falls, a gold cigarette lighter. The synergy between the narrative strands adds up to something far richer than any of them would have been individually.
That being said, if there is one real disadvantage to this structure it’s that character development is harder to achieve. Readers’ engagement is driven by perceptions of a character’s personality traits, the things which happen to them and those of their own making. When it came to the longer, widely differing depictions of Ursula’s adult life I found myself unsure of who the ‘real’ Ursula was and less emotionally invested in the outcome for her as protagonist than I would usually be, although all the scenarios were perfectly believable except for the one in which Ursula changes the course of history, which I found contrived and unnecessary. The book is suffused with the warmth and empathy which always comes through in Kate Atkinson’s work and there are moments of terrible poignancy; in addition to all the losses of war, the portrayal of domestic violence was horribly disturbing.
Kate Atkinson’s writing is as fluent and polished as ever (her fondness for brackets undiminished), and superbly evocative of any historical period she touches. Her special ability to juxtapose bleakness and beauty is often in evidence, as here after a WWII bombing raid:
The half of the street that wasn’t on fire had been badly hit and the acid-raw smell of powdered brick and cordite struck their lungs immediately. Ursula tried to think of the meadow at the back of the copse at Fox Corner. Flax and larkspur, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies.
A stretcher bearer […] was picking up limbs – arms and legs that were sticking out of the rubble. He looked as if he was intending to piece the dead back together at a later date. Did someone do that, Ursula wondered? In the mortuaries- try to match people up like macabre jigsaws?
Literary references are in abundance too, another feature of the author’s writing. In this novel they are embedded in Ursula’s point of view which seemed consistent across the strands and completely in character. There is a cringe-making moment where she quotes Donne at someone she’s just slept with in a casual encounter but even after realising her mistake, in practically the next breath she says How Lawrentian! Forsterian also makes an appearance. She can’t seem to help herself.
This is a stimulating and bold novel which will satisfy the author’s following around the world and one with a strong hook to attract new readers. It’s a demonstration of enormous literary skill, thoughtfulness and understanding of human nature. It is truly Atkinsonian.
Are you a Kate Atkinson fan?
This is a very busy time of year for big new releases which is why there are TWO posts this week. Bestselling author Tracy Chevalier joins me as guest on the Literary Sofa on Thursday to talk about her new novel The Last Runaway.
I’m reading this at the moment and agree with everything you’ve said. I’m up to the bit where she’s just died by the hands of her truly vile husband. It is a monumental book – tackling huge themes – but I agree, the effect of the structure does have a negative impact on character development. It is hard to pin down what is ‘real.’
I know some people are reading it without tracking the timeline and just letting it wash over them and others are painstakingly keeping a note of the date. It is a fascinating concept but it took me a while to get into it.
I was a huge fan of Behind the Scenes at the Museum but not so much the Jackson Brodie ones. I found the opening of ‘When Will There Be Good News almost too upsetting to read any further. I bought Started Early, Took My Dog but confess to not having read it.
Yours was the first comment and since I don’t read other people’s reviews etc before writing my own, I was glad to get it because I often wonder if I have completely missed the point of a book or if my response to it is weird! So it was interesting to hear that your response to the novel was similar to mine. People are of course free to read however they wish but I have to say, reading this without taking any account of the timeline seems very strange to me. I wouldn’t even have thought that was possible. From Twitter yesterday I got the impression lots of her fans didn’t like the Jackson books as much, so no doubt they’ll be delighted by this one. Thanks for commenting.
Hi Isabel, thanks for the thoughtful, insightful book review. Life after Life has already been getting big press in the U.S., so I’ve been waiting impatiently to read it. It’s now at the top of my TBR pile! I find parts of her books difficult to read because of their subject matter (I’m a softie), but the benefits definitely outweigh the negatives, and I know the difficult bits are difficult because she’s such a good writer.
I think you’re right, Kate Atkinson does darkness and even horror so brilliantly that it really pulls you right in. Parts of this book are very upsetting, but the overall quality of the novel is unquestionably worth it. For a writer, there’s also a lot to learn from the way she wrote it – it really made me think, especially as I’m in mid restructuring myself. Thanks for the lovely comment.
I have to confess, I’ve not read any Kate Atkinson. Shocker! But have been meaning to for several years now. Which one do you recommend I start with? This novel sounds really interesting; you write beautiful reviews Isabel.
Thanks for the compliment, Louise. I think I’d say start with this one. My other favourite was her debut; I liked the Jackson Brodie books but I prefer the standalones. You will be wowed, I bet.
“…the acid-raw smell of powdered brick and cordite struck their lungs “. Lungs are perhaps damaged by such polluted air, but do not register smell. The nose does that (to be precise; the mucous membrane along the top of the nasal cavity). Something like “the air, acid-raw with powdered brick and cordite, struck their lungs” instead would have been better.
But also, in reality not the bricks but rather the sand & lime mortar between the bricks and the interior plaster would have been “powdered” *). This is of course not about literary qualities but basic craftsmanship; being in control of what you are writing. You don’t tend to find such slips in older books. Are publishers economising on editorial costs? Am I the reader from hell?
* After WWII the bricks were everywhere easily reclaimed from the debris, e.g. by the famous Berlin Trümmerfrauen, precisely because much of the old type sand and lime mortar (unlike modern sand and cement mortar) disintegrates when a building is destroyed (you can see the dust clouds on old film footage) and the bricks generally remained whole, because the much softer sand & lime mortar tended to absorb the impacts.
I couldn’t possibly comment on whether you’re ‘the reader from hell’ (!) but I will say this: If (IF) my novel is ever published, I beg you not to go anywhere near it…. Your forensic approach to fiction is impressive but I fear it would render almost any novel unreadable. Well, to me it would! Thanks for the comment. I’m going to start getting paranoid about which quotations I include having been pulled up on two in a row.
Peter and Isabel, I certainly don’t want to read fiction in a forensic way and don’t set out to do so. I want to suspend all disbelief and be immersed in the story, to the point of being barely aware that I am reading. That is only possible if the images work. It is like getting the continuity right in a movie. You are forced to become “forensic” if the printed words clash with the images the author is trying to put in your mind and you suddenly find yourself rudely kicked out of the story. After such an incident it is hard to trust the author again when you try to re-enter the story. The magic has gone. To put it another way, it feels a bit like seeing bathroom tiling which doesn’t line up properly. This may seem just a visual irritant but it can be indicative of cowboy work generally and you’d better check for dodgy plumbing and dangerous wiring.
I do not believe for one moment that Kate Atkinson didn’t know that you smell with your nose, not with your lungs. For that, you don’t need a medical degree. That bit is just sloppy writing. Of course, such things occasionally slip through at the manuscript stage, but that’s why meticulous editing (i.e. quality control) is so important. It is my impression that publishers are becoming more careless in this respect and try to produce novels more cheaply. I admit that the stuff about bricks & mortar is a bit more specialised, but not all that much for there are still millions of Edwardian, Victorian and older houses and other buildings in use and they have to be maintained and repaired by their owners and you also see them occasionally being demolished. In any case, if you want to write about what destroyed buildings in WWII are like – even if just in passing – you should acquire some basic knowledge to find out such buildings actually behave when they are destroyed and for that you should have in turn some elementary understanding of how they were put together. I am myself no specialist in such things; it is fairly basic stuff. Alternatively, if the research is too much hassle, just reduce the descriptive detail in such passages and let the reader do more of the work, e.g. something like “the air, acid-raw from collapsed buildings and cordite, struck their lungs.” Don’t underestimate the reader’s power of imagination. Very often, less is more, as we all know.
All this takes me back to the early 1960s, the lessons Dutch at secondary school where a Mrs Schmidt, who was about 60, made us read passages from Biggles books in Dutch translation to spot examples of poor and sloppy writing, often instances where the writer (or translator) was too lazy to visualise what he was writing to check whether the actual words made sense. Later we progressed to examining texts from populist newspapers in the same way. If there was a syllabus, she seemed to have ignored it and her teaching was not based on theory, but came from living through the 1st half of the 20th century. She did a great job for she made us remember one important thing, that writing and reading is about truth: read what the words say, not what you would like them to say. Eventually, that becomes second nature. Writing is really hard work and incredibly difficult because every sentence, every phrase, every word has to be true to what you want to say (true to the story and its settings if you are writing fiction), and “near enough is good enough” won’t do, not even in science fiction. The best writers even manage to make it look easy.
I am passionate about this because we are inundated with low grade writings in the form of cheap political and commercial language, and also cheap fiction produced by the linear shelf metre, all of which use language as a kind of verbal junk food. They disconnect reading from thought and real experience. That makes us vulnerable to being manipulated.
I did not set out to annoy anyone but my zero tolerance for careless and untrue language in print is non-negotiable. And I have nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed reading quite a number of beautifully written contemporary English language novels, most recently “The Clothes on their Backs”, by Linda Grant.
Here are some amazing post-war footage and photographs of Berlin women clearing rubble and reclaiming bricks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5nOLh62DbY
Tom, thanks for coming back to explain your position. I don’t think anyone was annoyed by your comments and I certainly wouldn’t want you to think they weren’t welcome. The individual way readers respond to fiction is fascinating. We all see the world in a different way.
Interesting points and questions there. I doubt the author realised she needed to take a bricklaying apprenticeship and a medical degree. This may well hamper her ability to deliver a book every two years though so I suppose she had to take the chance of offending the purists?
I’m not sure about older books. I like to think Edith Nesbit lay awake at night when writing the ‘Railway Children’ for fear of rolling stock and signal inaccuracies?
I think you can only go so far. I’ve written a novel partly set in Brooklyn in 1976 and have gone to great lengths to get it right – literally, crossing the pond several times and involving locals in the process. But I could have spent the rest of my life obsessing over it, not something I want to do, fascinated as I am by the place. I think maybe Tom’s point was that the images themselves are not technically, and literally correct. Glaring mistakes jump out at me but I have to admit it didn’t happen much with this book.
I was being a bit flippant but I agree with you. If something is integral to the plot, then getting it right is important but there are lots of things in a book which are much more about atmosphere and feel. Trying to be 100% accurate can require extra detail which just bogs the story down.
By sheer coincidence my father was a sergeant in the Royal Artillery during the war and was quite used to being at the wrong end of bombers. He was stationed in London during the Blitz so I asked him about bomb damage. His (sanitised) reply was that if a large bomb falls directly on you, there’s not much left of anything. However bomb blast and incendiary devices caused most of the damage to people and buildings during the Blitz. I think Kate can scrape through on a technicality.
Hi Isabel. after your reassurance that your review didn’t contain spoilers, I couldn’t wait to read it and find out more about Kate’s latest book. She is easily one of my all-time favourite writers and I’ve enjoyed all of her books, especially Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I also found the opening scene of When Will There Be Good News very moving and it has stayed with me. I’ve tried repeatedly to attend one of Kate’s book events but I’ve never managed to get a ticket, make the date etc. But this Saturday, I’m finally going to see her in Edinburgh and I can’t wait to hear her in person. The postman should deliver the book today but I doubt I’ll have time to read it before Saturday. I will probably blog about the event and would love to link my post to your fantastic review if that’s ok.
Gosh Helen, I am very flattered! Of course you can link to my review. I’m so pleased for you that you’re finally getting to see one of your literary heroes – Kate Atkinson is one of mine for sure. I know how inspiring and exciting it is to see them in the flesh – I think the pinnacle for me so far was getting to talk to Richard Ford and have him sign my copy of Canada. Have a wonderful time on Saturday and I really look forward to your blogpost. (BTW you’re right, it’s not a quick read at all. Took me a whole week – and you know how I gobble them up – despite not watching TV, burning the dinner, etc!)
I re-read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life tonight and happened to notice that the copyright belongs to Kate Costello. When I searched for Kate Costello on Google I found a company called Kate Costello with a director called KA Atkinson.
I also found several links to reviews posted by Isabel Costello one of which I had read and been impressed with last year.
Is this one of those strange “same name” coincidences that life throws up?
It certainly is. I had no idea Kate Atkinson had any connection with the name Costello and there is no connection between us either! I’ve reviewed Life After Life (and many other novels) here – it’s nice to hear you enjoyed the one you saw.