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.