Thursday, May 16, 2013

Kate Atkinson's Life after Life

I just turned the last page of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life and closed the book, and I must say it's the most satisfying -- and intriguing -- novel I've read for some time.  The novel's premise -- of living and reliving one's life until one gets it right, a Groundhog Day, to be a bit reductive -- suggests the risk of a gimmick, but Atkinson makes us care about Ursula, the protagonist, and to know enough about the supporting characters that we are engaged by them in each reiteration of a particular pivotal moment. Rather than being bored -- a distinct possibility, I'd say -- as we encounter whole sequences of paragraphs repeated from earlier pages, we know all the characters well enough to be caught up in recognizing the truth in how they would react to a variation, however minor or significant. In fact, there's quite often that frisson of reader pleasure as one spots a lesser repetition, a fleeting reference to a particular colour of dress, for example, or the figure of a man moving across a landscape.

I'm leery of novels that cater to a fascination with World War II, especially those that verge on sentimentalizing the Holocaust (however contradictory that sounds, it happens, don't you think?). There's a briskness to Atkinson's writing that avoids that danger, even as it's satisfyingly detailed in describing places. Wartime London is a hellish place where Ursula works as a volunteer responder in the hours after her full-time clerical, then administrative gig in the War Offices. I've emerged from the novel with a reel of images of its interiors -- spartan bedsits and makeshift bomb-cellars crowded with neighbours and large offices and hotel bedrooms -- as well as its exteriors -- dark, dark walks home through foggy streets anxiously listening for the whistle of an incoming . . .

There's also the seductive respite of the countryside family home Ursula grew up in and returns to when she can, Fox Corners. Not on the grand scale of Downton Abbey, but again, much satisfaction in watching the huge class structure shift after the First World War, and the adjustments to various new technologies -- automobiles, telephones, radios, and televisions. . .

So once again, my review/response is a quick and dirty one, but this is a book I will highly recommend. In fact, I hope to reread it before too long just to understand a bit better how it works so well.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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