Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
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bookshelves: top-reviews, sui-generis, ww2, fantasy-surreal

The Art of Recycling

This is a tricky book to review: easy to enjoy, but curiously empty. Its five hundred pages flew by like the wind; this is the kind of writing I have been reading since childhood, literary comfort food. As a British expatriate, it feels very close to home: these are my kind of people leading lives I understand, if not always in actuality then at least from books. I felt it was all rather vapid at first, but I became increasingly impressed with Atkinson's ingenuity as I read on; a veteran puzzler myself, I raise my hat to anyone who can do something this clever. But to what end? I look to a novel of this scale to do more than merely keep me amused. Yet there was never a time in the book when I felt truly touched or even much surprised. The total, I felt, was less than the sum of its many parts. Much less.

But I had better explain. Atkinson's conceit here is that her heroine, Ursula Todd, is immune from death, at least in a literary sense. If she dies at the end of one chapter, the author simply winds back the clock and starts again. So in the earliest chapter, dated February 1910, a baby is born with the cord twisted around her neck, dead. In the next, the scene is repeated, but the doctor makes it through the snow in time, and the child is saved. Some chapters later, however, a cat settles in the baby's cradle, smothering her. And so on. It is like a maze; if you come to a dead end, you retrace your steps a little and try a different route.

The plethora of short chapters and frequent restarts soon became tedious. But then the novel opened out in the interwar years and especially in some gripping scenes set in the London Blitz, as we spent more time with Ursula as a young woman and adult. Atkinson builds up a very full life (or lives) for her, with a rich family structure (three brothers, a sister, and a black-sheep aunt), a career in the civil service, and a variety of romantic entanglements that appear or vanish in the various incarnations. The structure now seems to be less a maze than a set of overlapping transparencies, different stories happening in different layers, with a few common elements drilled down through them. But you begin to suspect that there will be no one definitive version; these are all possible directions in which the author can develop a relatively simple series of facts, trying one thing and then the other, and never having to choose among them. In this sense, it is a kind of allegory of the writing process: this is what a novelist can do; isn't it exciting? Intermittently yes, but ultimately self-indulgent.

Fiction, to engage me, must involve me with its characters and make me care about their fates. I certainly liked Ursula; but once I realized that any setbacks in her life would immediately be replaced by another version, it became difficult to care about her. But I admit to being amazed how often Atkinson could draw me back in. In the latter half of the book there are half-a-dozen versions of the near-destruction of a London street, involving Ursula variously as an Air Raid Warden, or a victim trapped in a cellar, or the brave rescuer of a frightened dog. Almost any one of these, in a straight novel of the 1950s, would have been a tear-jerker; you can see the film treatment written all over them. But their plurality reminds you that they are mere artifacts; you may be impressed, but you also know you are being manipulated.

In addition to reserving the right to present multiple versions of Ursula's story, Atkinson gives her a dim sense of her own multiplicity. She is subject to déjà vu, which is understandable and effective. She is occasionally frightened by a faint awareness of something happening in a parallel life. And to some extent she can see the future. It is this last that gives me the most trouble, because Atkinson uses it as a thread linking prologue and epilogue with a number of scenes set in Germany between the wars. It is a relatively minor thread, and much less interesting than Ursula's life in London, but I suspect the author intends it as a serious armature around which the other stories can be gathered. If so, it fails; the what-ifs of history pale beside the real thing.

I couldn't shake the impression that Atkinson was practicing the art of recycling, not just the various repeated episodes within the complex story, but also the styles and tropes of an earlier type of fiction. What I referred to as "comfort food" is the style I associate with the romantic novel of sixty years ago. Here, for example, are Ursula's parents discussing what to call the house they will eventually christen Fox Corner:
— "We should give the house a name," Hugh said. "The Laurels, the Pines, the Elms."
— "But we have none of those in the garden," Sylvie pointed out.
— "Greenacres, Fairview, Sunnymead?" Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.
It's an affectionate parody of nice middle-class people saying amusing things to one another, and the vaguely comic tone continues for some time thereafter, in knowing little parentheses and clever comments. Atkinson has used this tone before in her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to devastating effect as the comedy suddenly turns serious. But there is no devastation here. Although the tone does become more serious towards the middle of the book, there is always that knowing detachment to undercut the emotional impact.


Postscript (2013): Is it a recent trend of British writers to recycle the styles of popular novels to postmodern effect? Especially writing about one or other of the World Wars. The most recent example was Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, who starts in almost a parody of the "plucky girl gets involved in important war work" genre, but uses it for his own clever ends. The war story is only one genre used by Sebastian Faulks in A Possible Life, but his whole book depends upon the recasting of established narrative types. I suppose this goes back to David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas (2004), although he so transcends his borrowed forms as to make them something new.

Even relatively straight books about this period seemingly cannot help borrowing the romance-adventure style that goes with it. Simon Mawer, in Trapeze, cannot seem to decide between the plucky-girl romance and realism. William Boyd in Waiting for Sunrise writes a saga of similar scope to Atkinson's, where the various tropes float just below the surface, giving a surely-deliberate sense of role-playing. Alan Hollinghurst covers exactly the same period as Atkinson in The Stranger's Child, playing a clever game with literary expectations throughout—but the novel is held together by his own superb sense of style, and there is nothing recycled about that.

One further comparison I might mention is to Sarah Waters' magnificent The Night Watch, which is also about the London Blitz from the women's perspective; although it does not work with multiple layers of meaning, it does have the unusual form of telling its story in four sections in reverse chronological order. Then, finally, there is Penelope Lively, who has long been writing clever books about unexpected consequences in the lives of middle-class people, though her contrivances are all of the traditional variety; no post-modernism with her!


Postscript (2016): Finally, Atkinson herself returns to the genre with her sequel, A God in Ruins (2015), which has all of the strengths of Life After Life, but almost none of its weaknesses.
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Reading Progress

March 4, 2013 – Started Reading
March 7, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 24, 2016 – Shelved
May 24, 2016 – Shelved as: top-reviews
June 10, 2016 – Shelved as: sui-generis
June 10, 2016 – Shelved as: ww2
July 2, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy-surreal

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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Violet wells Fabulous review, Roger. I never reviewed this but you've taken many words out of my mouth. Completely agree too that A God in Ruins is much more successful.

Roger Brunyate Thank you so much, Violet! R.

message 3: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette Read this years ago and never rated or reviewed it. Yours is the best.

Roger Brunyate Jeanette wrote: "Read this years ago and never rated or reviewed it. Yours is the best."

I appreciate that, Jeanette (and also that you're following me). Do I gather that you had problems with it too? I think there should be a special rating category for books like this, not the mediocre 3-stars meaning "it's OK," but something more oxymoronic: "it was brilliant and unforgettable, but for me it didn't work"! R.

message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Roger wrote: " "it was brilliant and unforgettable, but for me it didn't work"!.."

The review was brilliant but the 'like' button didn't work for me;-(

message 6: by Roger (last edited Nov 30, 2017 10:16AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roger Brunyate Fionnuala wrote: "Roger wrote: " "it was brilliant and unforgettable, but for me it didn't work"!.."

The review was brilliant but the 'like' button didn't work for me;-("

I wonder why? But at any rate, I appreciate being told in words far more than in statistics! R.

Margitte Excellent, excellent review! Thanks for adding all the other books in the review. I am still not sure if I want to read the sequel, but you convince me to reconsider. Thank you.

Roger Brunyate Thank you, Magritte. I wonder now if I was not a little too mean about this one, after having enjoyed the sequel so much. It has certainly proved a reference-point in much of my subsequent reading. Roger.

Heidi Great review! I read it at a fast clip as well and just wish the characters had more depth. Particularly the protagonist.

Have you read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North? I thought this was a really well done take on this theme.

Roger Brunyate No, Heidi, I haven’t read the North book, but I will look it up right now. R.

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