Saturday, May 11, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ever since her first novel "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" Kate Atkinson has managed to write novels that are both artistically and commercially successful. She's always been interested in genre - as the stories within stories of "Human Croquet" show as much as the Jackson Brodie  crime novels that she has been writing for the last through years - but also in unusual structures. That first Brodie novel, "Case Histories" was about the juxtaposition of seemingly distinct stories. One connecting thing between the crime fiction and her other novels has been a constant exploring of the messiness of life, particularly of families, of which she is perhaps our best chronicler.

"Life after Life" is her first non-Brodie novel for a few years and its a triumph. Ursula is born on a snowy night, but is strangled by her umbilical chord, and the doctor and midwife arrive too late to save her. The novel is over on the first page, except its not, for Ursula - "my little fox" her father calls her - has a second chance, and another, and another - life after life after life. In this ingenious novel of starts and endings, Atkinson plays around with the might-have-beens, the accidents that mean we might not survive beyond a particular unlucky incident. Ursula, slowly becoming aware of her "deja vu," accidentally or purposefully alters her history. Around her are a large middle class family, and there story is told from before the first world war until the 1960s. A story of a century of tumult, where Ursula and her siblings, her aunt and friends are to play pivotal roles. Her unlikeable brother Maurice gets a top job at the ministry, Ursula a more lowly one. Her father is a solid, kind banker, her mother Sylvia, a bright woman who gets increasingly angry and frustrated by the life she has been given, the downsizing of the family fortune after her father died leading her to always regret the loss, rather than revel in what she has: the strong family based around a lovely house that they name Fox Corner.

This is the southern middle class life of "Howard's End", perhaps the constant touchstone for a certain kind of English novel. Like in that book, this class have their own familial connections with Germany, a closeness that will be ruptured in a century of two great wars. Into this bigger story, Ursula's part slowly becomes clear. A summer visit to the Brauns gets her close to Eva, the daughter who will one day be Hitler's mistress. For like Stephen King's recent time travel novel, Atkinson wants to do much more than untangle a life of many second chances. King had to consider the possibility of an altered history where Oswald doesn't kill Kennedy; for Atkinson, and Ursula, the possiblity that she might alter the course of history and kill Hitler before he comes to power is an equally powerful possibility.

Yet though this second story - again, foretold in the first few pages of the novel - helps deliver the book's forward tension; it is in Ursula's life and family that Atkinson concentrates our interest. This is a book about the affirmation that a life should be lived, regardless of the bigger stories that can consume many lives. As we move seamlessly between different epochs, Ursula's life becomes more than its fractures and by the Second World War, she becomes one of the many stories of Londoner's battling against the might of the Luftwaffe, either (in one scenario) as an air warden or (in another) as a worker within the ministry. Her love affairs; the relationship with her scatty but lovely aunt Izzy; and the claims on family that periodically draw her back to Fox Corner, are all deftly worked into the tapestry of the novel.

There's an effortlessness about the construction which has always been one of Atkinson's key strengths. The joy of reading her is not in the withholding of what to come, but in the guessing what will come next. Her Brody novels frequently didn't need much working out; but the pleasure was in the way she engages us in her characters. She remains one of our best writers about people, and it seems to me that it is in many ways a more successfull book than, for instance, the similarly scaled "The Strangers Child." Always a joy to read, in "Life After Life" we're pleased to re-encounter the bigger canvasses of her early novels, for enjoyable as her detective stories were, the demands of the genre always seemed to hem her in a little. In "Life after Life" she is gloriously unhemmed. I knew from the structure that it was worth waiting till I had a good long period to read this long novel, and I was right to wallow in it. The multiple starts and endings work best when encountered in quick succession and I think the book would lose some of its power if read slowly or over a long period. So engaging is it that you'll not want to put it down anyway.

The only part of the book I had my reservations about was the one story that dominates at the centre - which I wonder whether was the starting point for the novel. For at the heart of "Life after Life" is another novel set in the days of the London Blitz. She writes well on this; her stories are very human ones, so well have we got to know Ursula, but so familiar is the British story here - from sitcoms to novels set in and around the war - that we don't really get anything new. Its a period that invites cliche, even when, as here, the characters are so well-formed, and the stories so believable. For the war has within it a million tragedies. In this context we see that Ursula's multiple endings are as nothing to the randomness of a bomb falling at a particular time and place. We are all survivors of our own lives, and that survival is what makes us human - we learn from our mistakes - but what of those who are cut short by their mistakes or worse, the grander mistakes of history?

As the last memories of the Second World War fades, it becomes history, a place for imagining, rather than one for remembering. For me it was the least successful part of the novel, not because its badly written or uninteresting, but because its a story that's been told in so many ways. Like in other alternate histories, Atkinson has found an ingenuity in retelling the story, but is interested in a single life - that of Ursula - and what might become of it through life's many twists and turns rather than the reshaping of world histories.

Its something of a tour de force, but eminently readable - that reminds us that over a writing career of nearly two decades, Atkinson has rarely failed to disappoint. A lovely, powerful, inventive novel that I'd highly recommend.

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