Saturday, March 8, 2014

And another book: LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson


I'd heard the buzz about this book for months and thought, well, really, how good can it be? I mean, people were gasping for air, grasping for new superlatives. You know how that can turn a person off a book really quickly. I don't know exactly why but for me, it's this: I tend to get suspicious. I think we all would like to believe that we're not really part of the crowd. We're unique. Therefore our reading experiences must be unique. If everyone else loves a book then we're going to hold back. Sniff the air a bit.

Well, I'm done sniffing.

Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE is a masterpiece of inventive story-telling. Pure and not so simple.

I'm not saying it's a perfect book, no, there are things about it that rankle. But rankling makes you think and a book this well written, any book this - yes - this uniquely conceptualized and crafted (by an obviously gifted writer having the time of her life) doesn't come down the pike very often

The crowd is occasionally right - a humbling thought. 

A book that dazzles by its virtuosity and makes you think big thoughts (even if you're not a person given to big thoughts), a book that dazzles really in any way at all, is not to be sneered at.

I read  LIFE AFTER LIFE in two nights. Couldn't put it down. It's a bit over 500 pages, but it's do-able since some of the pages are only a few paragraphs.

It does take a bit of getting use to, this strange odyssey of Ursula Todd, a young woman with many lives to live. It is winter: 1910, when Ursula is born during the middle of a snowstorm and quickly dies, strangled by her mother's umbilical cord. Blackness descends. Then again she's born and lives - this time the doctor arrives in the nick of time. Her life reaches a certain point and she dies again. Then she is born once more and lives to go on to yet another life until she dies again - we go back and forth and back and forth. As I said it does take getting used to. It took me a few chapters but I eventually caught on. 

Each of Ursula's lives is peopled with friends and family whom we grow familiar with over time and whose different fates await alongside Ursula's - some of these fates are ugly, some are heart-breaking, all seem excruciatingly real. One of Ursula's own fates shows her up to be a relatively stupid young woman whom it is difficult to like or sympathize with. Another shows her to be quite heroic and exceptional. In yet another she is an abused wife. In another she is...

Ursula ('little bear' as her father Hugh - the most likable character in the book - calls her) is relatively unaware of this multiplicity of existence, though she is occasionally given to strange behavior and moments of deja vu. As when still a child, she  pushes the family maid Bridget down the stairs (breaking her arm) to save the girl from some dreadful fate which Ursula is only vaguely aware of.

She is sent by her mother, Sylvie (the most enigmatic character, I think, in the book) to a psychiatrist who specializes in difficult children. He is as odd and in a way, as fascinating a character as Ursula. Dr. Kellet believes that the child may be remembering other lives . 'Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present only the now.' Hardly the sort of thing that would make sense to a ten year old girl, and yet somehow it does.

What if we could go back and do this or that differently? Who hasn't thought that once or twice? Who hasn't wished for it? What if there were a way to alter reality? For that matter, which is the reality? Ursula Todd gets to go back, keeps getting to go back, but remains unaware except for a fleeting familiarity or the occasional sense of dread. It is only near the last third of the book that she becomes convinced that she's done all this before -  near the end when she attempts to save the world. 

In LIFE AFTER LIFE, Atkinson has written as good an account as I've ever read of the horror of the London blitz during WWII when Germany, beginning in 1940, bombed London consistently for fifty seven days and normality was completely overshadowed by the daily threat of imminent death and destruction. One of the accounts of the war is written from the point of view of an Ursula who has married a German lawyer, gotten German citizenship (?!!) and been forced to remain in Berlin during the war. 

Most of the characters in Ursula's immediate circle (or many circles) are well fleshed out, but it is her family and friends, the fates of the different members of that circle, that capture the imagination. Atkinson writes children very, very well, she fashions a comfortable English country childhood for Ursula and her brothers and sisters, an almost idyllic childhood punctuated by dark moments: the body of an unknown child is found discarded in a pig trough, Ursula drowns at the age of four while on holiday with her family at the seaside. A few pages later, a lifetime later, she is rescued by an artist painting nearby. 

This is not a novel you slip into surely and quickly, you may have the same confused feelings as I did for the first few pages, going back and forth, trying to figure out what was what. But this only lasts for a moment or two and thereafter comes the reward. You just have to trust that Atkinson knows what she's doing and knows where she's going.

It is true that in way, the author is playing tricks on us as Francine Prose says in her NY Times review of LIFE AFTER LIFE, she [Atkinson] is having fun with this novel, 'which is as much about writing as it is about anything else.' Yes, I agree. 

To read more of Francine Prose's 'take' on LIFE AFTER LIFE, please check out her excellent review (from April 2013) in the NY Times here

27 comments:

  1. Yvette,

    This sounds interesting. I shall look into it. Is she the same Kate Atkinson who wrote _Case Histories_?

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  2. Yes it is, Fred. Don't miss this one.

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  3. Yvette,

    OK, it's on my list. The library has it.

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  4. Don't forget to let me know what you think once you've a chance to read it. Oh, and make sure you set aside some time. You won't to stop reading for awhile. :)

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  5. Yvette,you are so right. I too am put off if a book is being praised to highly. This one seems pretty interesting though. Thanks for the write-up. I'll look for it in the library.

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    1. It's so wonderful, Neer. I hope you get a chance to read it. Admittedly, sometimes the crowd is right. :)

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  6. Wow! I've been tantalized by this book for some time, since the New York Times listed it as one of the 10 best books of 2013.

    Now after reading this review, I'm both intimidated and enticed. Can my reading brain deal with all of this? Well, I will try. A friend has it on hold at the library, and I'll read it or try to read it. I will give it a go.

    I like Atkinson's Jackson Brody mysteries, so I'll get the book and start it after I make a dent in my books from the library.

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    1. I think you'll be fascinated by this book, Kathy. That's part of the allure. It is a very special reading experience.

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  7. It is on my t-b-r list at the library as is Life After Life by Jill McCorkle.

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    1. Another LIFE AFTER LIFE? Never heard of it. I wonder if I should take a look. :)

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  8. I'm am so, so, so glad you liked it! I am the same. Very leery of books that everyone adores. This one, though, it is one of my best reads of the year so far. Now, to get on my best list, a book really does have to pass the sniff test.

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    1. One of my best as well, Belle. It's definitely a great reading year so far. The Sniff Test. Yes. Agreed. :)

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  9. Hello Yvette:

    You have succeeded in whetting our appetites. Ursula, with her several lives, described so well by you in this excellent review is not to be ignored. We shall go with the crowd - on this occasion!!

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    1. Sometimes you just have to, Jane and Lance. I wonder what you'll make of this book. I hope you do get a chance to read it at some point. It really is something unique.

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  10. Oh Yvette, see what you've gone and done?! Now I HAVE to read this book that I had firmly decided not too read even though I adore Atkinson's writing. I think I will save it for May when we go to Hilton Head and I will be a golf widow all week! Thanks!

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    1. Oh you'll love it, Peggy Ann. I'm almost positive. On vacation is a great time to read it - you won't be able to put it down anyway, so being a 'golf widow' gives you the perfect opportunity to indulge. :)

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  11. I always enjoy Kate Atkinson so will definitely pick up this book when I go on my next trip. It sounds as if it is about the right length for a good holiday read.

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    1. Absolutely, Rosemary. You'll love it.

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  12. Speaking of good books, although not a mystery, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior is a top one. It focuses on a woman in Appalachia, stuck in a dead-end situation. She encounters a fluke due to climate change: Monarch butterflies flying there, instead of to Mexico.

    What she learns from a scientist is invaluable. But, she also gains confidence to work on her own life for her sake and her children's.

    Kingsolver is a biologist, so she includes a lot of scientific information, but in an interesting way.

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    1. Sounds interesting, Kathy. Thanks. I'll give it a look - maybe later in the Spring.

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  13. Oh me, oh my! I now feel utterly left out of this obviously oh so cool coterie of hip readers of the world. Yours is the umpteeenth rave review of Atkinson's book. Now I'm settled. LIFE AFTER LIFE will be the first book I read in April.

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    1. Oh we are desperately cool, John. Ha. Don't forget to let us know what you think, m'dear.

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  14. Thanks for that Yvette - I've been eagerly awaiting to get my hands on this one after all the poositive reviews - and this really sets the seal on it - definitely going out to buy it today - thanks chum! This does mean that I only skimmed your review in parts, but will come back to it, promise!

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    1. Not to worry, Sergio. I'm glad you're running out to get the book. I'm sure you'll be immediately caught up though, so set some real time aside. :)

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  15. I loved this book. But my book group was pretty divided. Some loved it and some found it absurd. They could not just give it to the concept and fought it

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    1. If you fight the concept there's no way to enjoy the book at all, Patti. You have to follow Atkinson and go where she leads otherwise, put the book down. I'm so glad you loved it. I don't know why people read if they don't want to be taken out of themselves.

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  16. Anyone who is interested in time travel, going back and doing a "do over", or just looking for a completely new idea of life and time will love this book. It takes a few chapters to "get it" on what is happening but then you can't put it down until you find out what happens next.
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