Tuesday 4 February 2014

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

   Winner of the Costa award for best novel (but not the overall award), shortlisted for the Women’s Prize (previously the Orange Prize) but not even on the Booker longlist, Kate Atkinson’s novel has perhaps underachieved after the significant hype and rave reviews on its release last January. Nor, despite its embrace by the sci-fi (and speculative fiction) community, was it submitted for the Clarke.

   Atkinson has flirted with the weird and the fantastic before, in Human Croquet (1997) and in her short story collection Not the End of the World (2002) so perhaps it's no surprise that Life after Life is a slipstream novel rich in metaphorical resonance. For those not familiar with the term slipstream it’s a little hard to pin down. Writer Bruce Sterling coined the term as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility,” probably situated somewhere between sci-fi and literary fiction. Atkinson’s novel fits because it uses an unusual device: the main character, Ursula Todd lives and dies several times. The novel, again and again, picks up Ursula’s life either at her birth or at some other juncture in her life. Such devices always signify a self-consciousness about a text and signal its metafictional properties.

   The novel’s subject matter is familiar - the massive changes (and weight of history) that occurred between the start of WW1 and the end of WW2. There is much here about the changes in women’s lives, the granulation of class relations and the experience of war; throughout Atkinson is brilliant – really brilliant - at evoking the voices and textures of life in the early part of the twentieth century.  There are lots of good reviews online though most find it difficult to write about the novel without giving big spoilers. The novel starts with a twenty-year-old Ursula about to assassinate Hitler though we aren’t sure if she succeeds. Then the novel goes back to the start of Ursula’s life on a snowy night in the winter of 1910. On its first iteration Sylvie, a comfortable middle class housewife gives birth to Ursula stillborn, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.  In the next chapter the doctor makes it through the snow and Ursula survives the birth. Then we begin to learn about the household; the servants Mrs Glover and Bridget; Ursula’s siblings Maurice and Pamela, her parents Sylvie and Hugh. In these early chapters Sylvie is the focus of the novel with brief insights into the young Ursula’s thoughts. In her fourth year Ursula dies and then the novel restarts.

   The UK’s greatest exponent of slipstream is Christopher Priest and in his customary old-school, slightly grumpy fashion he reviewed Life after Life. It’s one of the better reviews because I think it asks most of the right questions even if I don’t think he’s correct in all of his analysis. Nonetheless:

“This is a beautifully written book, the language precise, evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes referential, often witty,  sometimes even vernacular. You can open it at almost any page and you will find good English, plausible dialogue, well-balanced narrative, attractive passages of description. Kate Atkinson is an excellent stylist and this book is a pleasure to read.”

And he’s right; it’s all those things, pleasurable, compulsive and easy to read. After a dreadful Autumn of reading very little I read the book (600 pages pbk) in a few hours over 3 days. Reviewers of literary fiction in the broadsheets have given overwhelmingly positive reviews. Most praise the evocation of middle class family life and the scenes during the blitz as the standout features, whilst a few are less convinced by the episodes in Nazi Germany. Another criticises “a tendency to resort to excessive allusion and literary quotation” whilst Priest criticises the thin characterisation.  Instead I found Atkinson’s references to Donne, Marvell, Keats and Shakespeare just right for the tone of the novel and true to her characters. I’d agree that some of the characters are a little thin but sometimes mood, atmosphere and detail can be just as important as depth of character in conveying time, place and complexity.  Amanda Craig gets it right in her review:

“By returning to characters and incidents, she builds up an almost pointillist impression of her world. The personal merges with the political; by the end, the happiness and survival of the Todd family have become a matter of keen interest.”

Indeed it never feels like Life after Life is driven by the demands of plot, like most mainstream fiction, TV and movies. It’s the journey(s) that are important rather than the end point.

   The novel messes with your expectations. Initially you see that Ursula’s life gets a little longer with each section but that calculation is soon shattered as you realise that Atkinson is writing Ursula a series of different lives where she will never be the same person, depending on chance, on the decisions she makes, and the actions of others. The novel takes on another level of complexity as Ursula starts to experience déjà vu when she approaches challenging moments of her ‘other’ lives.  The reader has to ask whether this is ‘really’ happening rather than it being a structural feature of the text; if so, what can it mean?

    The fragility of lives (especially in war time), the impact of choices taken and not taken – on individual lives and greater historical events, are not uncommon literary preoccupations so I’ve been trying to discern why I found the novel so powerful and moving. I think the answer is Ursula. First there’s the central metaphor of the book – in an almost fairy tale-like-way she keeps coming back for more: she endures, and in the best of her iterations is open to the new possibilities opening up around her whilst sensitive to what is being lost. When in other sections life dishes out bleak and uncompromising alternatives, the reader feels the loss of her potential and her strength. Amanda Craig again:

“Ursula is in keeping with Atkinson’s previous angry, intelligent women survivors and avengers. Once she has made determined, repeated efforts to save the family maid, Bridget, and her little brother from dying of Spanish flu, we’re on her side. Each time, we are told how “darkness fell” but, each time, she is reborn.”

   I always try to be aware of my propensity for hyperbole so I won’t go overboard with praise. I don’t quite understand why for instance Atkinson wanted to start the novel with Ursula so consciously trying to change history. It makes you feel as though that is where the novel is leading us; to a final act of history-changing significance, and in a way it does. Yet the substance of the novel undermines such an idea: that this is what individual lives are for or can achieve. Instead it seems to show the importance of bearing witness to history and how it is collective effort and action that can make a (small) difference.  As you can see I’m still puzzling over it.  That said, I loved reading it and like all the best texts it requires and deserves a second reading. For anyone looking for a good book it’s a brilliant way to start 2014.

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