I brought home Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life from the one-week loan shelf. Following the tradition of previous years, I aim to read a few books from the Women’s Fiction Prize (previously called Orange Prize), although this year I have decided not to read all of them due to this reason here.
Running at 463 pages it is a big daunting novel to consume and I will explain why later on.
Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England, during a snowstorm. She dies before she can take her first breath. Ursula Todd is born again and lives to tell the tale and then she dies in several different circumstances.
You see, Ursula Todd is given a chance to live her life again and again. Ursula doesn’t know, but the readers hope Ursula could get it right. Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century (WWI and WWII) again and again. Most her lifetime(s) span from 1910 to 1947, although there was one instance that I was slightly happy to find that she lives beyond 1947. You can see why this book runs till 463 pages, because there is bound to be a slight repetition.
I was reminded of a German movie I watched in 1999 when Run, Lola, Run first screened in cinema. Everyday Lola wakes up, she makes a different decision. These different decisions, mostly a split second of a decision, takes Lola to different consequences.
I thought it was entertaining to watch such storyline on movie but would it be the same feeling reading a story that starts (opens with “Snow”) and stops (“When darkness falls”) , starts and stops, starts and stops for so many times?
The truth is such story format is exhausting at the beginning. The motivation to read a book is to find what is at the other end. So if it ends prematurely, it gives me a feeling that I have to start all over again. We all know that feeling of “having to start all over again”. The first 70 pages or so, do test my patience a little bit. I persevere, and once I got past the start/stop marks and the story extends a little longer, I actually enjoy it.
Albeit many changes, there are a few constants in Ursula’s lives. Ursula loves her father Hugh. Sylvie, was a distant and critical mother. Maurice, her brother, whom Ursula didn’t quite get along; but Ursula loves her elder sister to bits. There is gentle younger brother Teddy, who fancy Nancy Cole, the neighbour. An elusive brother, Jimmy. The cook Mrs Glover and maid Bridget. In times of need, Ursula’s unconventional aunt, Izzie provides the refuge. Ursula sees a, what was called a mind doctor back then, called Dr. Kellet. A string of Ursula’s lovers…. So yes, there are plenty of names and characters to get acquainted with.
Reading the novel, it always dawn on me: Just like my life, on hindsight how easy it is to identify the significant points of Ursula’s lives that she could have made a better decision, what if she took a different course of action? What if she turns around and walks away from danger? I have my regrets in a certain point of my life when I look back and thought “I should have done this, I could have made that decision…” but in every lives, Ursula doesn’t always get it right.
People muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance. – page 324
‘No point in thinking,’ she said briskly, ‘You just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.’ (The transformation was complete.) – page 404
Amor fati – Love of fate. It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced. – page 440
This is my first book written by Kate Atkinson therefore I wouldn’t be able to make a judgement of what her other novels are like. Atkinson writes with confident. I didn’t like the overuse of Latin, the French and the German languages thrown into the mix¸ including pompous vocabulary (hoi polloi, Froideur, soigné etc). They are featured too many times in this novel and it makes the writing feels a little pretentious and put-on overall. It feels a little Froideur!
I was puzzled and bored the first 70 pages, hooked when Ursula grew into a young confident and not so confident woman (depending which story you are reading). There was one chapter of her life that is so violent and horrible that I wish it would end for Ursula. Then it followed a re-enactment of several versions of the WWII. It recalls the experience of the London Blitz, there is a knight in the book who saves St. Paul Cathedral from being shelled, it also gives me a glimpse of the lives of Hitler and his mistress, Eva. Towards the end I started to feel impatient and wondered when the book will finally “end”. I must admit, it was a rollercoaster ride for me.
The cathedral survived despite being targeted during the Blitz — it was struck by bombs on 10 October 1940 and 17 April 1941. On 12 September 1940 a time-delayed bomb that had struck the cathedral was successfully defused and removed by a bomb disposal detachment of Royal Engineers under the command of Temporary Lieutenant Robert Davies. Had this bomb detonated, it would have totally destroyed the cathedral, as it left a 100-foot (30 m) crater when later remotely detonated in a secure location.
However the above are minor quibbles. I like reading books that make me think. After reading this, I thought in hindsight I should have undone the many wrongs and chosen a different path or a least resistance path in my life. Sometimes I am filled with regrets, sometimes I am full of hope. Whatever I feel I knew my life is going to be just this one, I don’t think I’ll ever want to relive my life again because it would be too tiring. Even if I live all over it again, I wouldn’t have the foresight to know which is the right way to live it. Free will vs fate. Life is filled with so much permutations and variables that it is just impossible for any of us to make an informed decision about which direction our lives will take.
The key message of the novel is big but the novel can be cumbersome to read. If you don’t mind that Ursula died 20 times (I have kept a counter!), then you would find the whole reading experience quite unusual and entertaining.
Will this win the Women’s Prize Fiction? It faces a stiff competition from Bring Up the Bodies, but this book is much talked about. I think Life After Life stands a good chance.
So many other positive views:
Claire@Word by Word: It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.
The Book Stop: Don’t pick up this book expecting a Jackson Brodie-like mystery novel, or straight-up historical fiction. This is a book you’ll work at, and think about, and appreciate for its complexity.
Book Magnet: Life After Life left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again.
She Reads Novels: Life After Life is a very clever, complex novel; I was so impressed by it!
Bookish Realm: But that is digressing. “Life After Life” is awesome because of all the thoughts it makes you think, of all the doors and windows it opens in your mind. Despite the temptation to “finally get it right”, I don’t think it’s possible because “right” is one of the most relative subjects there is, changing in time and space. I think what I personally take with me from this book is amor fati
Hardback. Publisher: Transworld 2013; Printed Length: 463 pages; Setting: London, UK. Source: Reading Central Library copy. Finished reading on: 22nd April 2013, Monday.
About the writer:
Kate Atkinson MBE (born 1951) is an English author.
She was born in York, and studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, gaining her Masters Degree in 1974. She subsequently studied for a doctorate in American Literature. She has often spoken publicly about the fact that she failed at the viva (oral examination) stage. After leaving university, she took on a variety of jobs from home help to legal secretary and teacher. She lived in Whitby, North Yorkshire, for a time, but now lives in Edinburgh.
Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year ahead of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Ewart Gladstone. It went on to be a Sunday Times bestseller. Since then, she has published another five novels, one play, and one collection of short stories. Her work is often celebrated for its wit, wisdom and subtle characterisation, and the surprising twists and plot turns. Her most recent work has featured the popular former detective Jackson Brodie.
Atkinson was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to literature