I actually re-read this (and then wrote this post) earlier in the summer, but for some reason didn’t publish it till now. So, while I take a bit of a break from writing about the Man Booker books, and congratulate myself for guessing 4 out of the final 6 on the shortlist, here are my thoughts on the excellent Kate Atkinson.
Review – Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
‘One day, of course, all this would be consigned to that same history, even the mountains – sand, after all, was the future of rocks.’
I re-read this because I started ‘A God in Ruins’ and realised that I couldn’t remember all that much about Teddy Todd. I know, ‘A God in Ruins’ is supposed to work as a stand-alone novel, but it’s not like re-reading this wonderful book was exactly a hardship. I loved it. I’d forgotten how much I’d loved it, which was great, because it meant that I could fall in love with it all over again.
You could be forgiven, from that last paragraph, for thinking that I’m a Kate Atkinson super-fan. I’m not, or not yet at least, although I might be on my way there. I’ve read, I think, one of the early Jackson Brodie novels, and one which had a character called Bunty, both of them years ago. ‘Life After Life’ is in a different league.
Thousands and thousands of words have been written about this novel, so just in brief: Ursula Todd is born into 1910, again and again, repeating her life over and over until she ‘gets it right’. At first she can’t remember her previous attempts at life, and then – well, it all develops from there. The reader is given a front-row seat to the triumphs and disasters of the Todd family throughout this process, taking in a big chunk of 20th-century British history, but focusing mainly on the inter-war period and WWII (editor’s note: I was on a serious World War Two kick earlier this year; it only ended when I started seriously to contemplate leaving the house in a gas mask).
The premise is intriguing enough – I’m a huge fan of the idea of a ‘do-over’ (I liked Ben Elton’s ‘Time and Time Again’, for the same reason). But the great joy of this novel for me is Atkinson’s voice, the omniscient narrator, caring about her characters (and making us care, too) but never getting sentimental, and bringing out comedy from the things they say and do like a modern-day Jane Austen. I hesitated over this comparison – given Austen’s place in the canon it’s not one I take lightly – but I think in this case it’s fair. Unlike Austen, there is a desire to extend past the ‘two inches of ivory’ – dealing with the great moments of history – but it’s the domestic parts of the novel, the way the family interacts, that I think work the best.
Also like Austen, Atkinson is eminently quotable; cases in point:
‘She married one man (‘a pleasant enough chap’) and woke up with another, one as tightly wound as Sylvie’s little carriage clock.’
‘’They’re so meek,’ Izzie said dismissively. ‘There’ll never be a revolution in this country. Not another one at any rate. We chopped the head off a king once and felt so guilty about it that we’ve been trying to make up for it ever since.’’
‘Sylvie’s knowledge, like Izzie’s, was random yet far-ranging, ‘the sign that one has acquired one’s learning from novels, rather than an education,’ according to Sylvie.’
And if that little trio of quotes doesn’t persuade you to read it, then I’m not sure what will. Now I’m off to read ‘A God in Ruins’, immediately.