Monday, February 3, 2014

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life: A Must Read

Perhaps this long but hugely enjoyable novel should more properly have been called Death after Death. Characters, loved and unloved, are continually dying, usually in war. This is England in its darkest days. I doubt the London blitz has ever been rendered so dramatically and faithfully in fiction. 

Highly regarded British author Kate Atkinson not only tells a superb and compelling story, but playfully indulges in a fair bit of 'meta', the license fiction rather than history gives her. She explores a range of countless possibilities and contingencies through the vicissitudes of her characters' lives and times. The structure is time shifts, but also, controversially, plot shifts. 

It's a Zelig-like chameleon device but the question is does it let the author too easily off the hook? It's rather convenient not to have to tease out the dramatic consequences of rather serious events like death, rape and domestic violence. Ursula is raped at age 16, but was she really? She's still a virgin at age 23. Is her dreadful marriage and the awful violence she suffers at the hands of her husband real? I guess not. It's never referred to subsequently. Is her decade-long sojourn in Hitler's Germany (including marriage to a Nazi, giving birth to a child and taking German citizenship) 'real'? All these critical sequences turn out in the end to be just literary artifices. Similarly Ursula's frequent deaths along the way. And Teddy, her beloved brother: did he die in the war or didn't he?

As the novel unfolds we realise therefore that we don't know Ursula really much at all. We are being continually teased and our growing attachment to Ursula and others in her life continually undermined. We're thwarted at every turn by a literary device that serves little creative purpose. 

Of course it serves some purpose. Our fragile grip on life as we're swept up in events is just that - fragile. So many things could have gone in other ways. I get this. But it's not terribly profound or insightful, it seems to me. 

I would have preferred it if Atkinson remained faithful to her large and powerful narrative arc and refrained from structurally undermining it by short 'para-life' excursions. It's as if the impulse to tell domestic tales has overwhelmed her.

Because Ursula Dodd is a wonderful creation; full of life, intelligent, courageous and modern. She's impossible not to fall in love with. Her sister-in-law Izzie is no less delightful. The novel gives us an insightful portrait of women and their invariably awful lot through the 20th century. Though imprisoned in loveless marriages and stultifying social expectations, they are the very backbone of survival and progress.

However, in the end, I nod to the Guardian reviewer who wrote: 'Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us'.

(By the way, whoever wrote the blurb for this book should be taken out and shot. 'What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?' There is one reader who had no idea what the author was trying to do! It is absurd. And the book is rather poorly edited. Run-on commas infest virtually every page. Grrr)

1 comment:

  1. I must admit that the first few pages didn't grab me as Kate Atkinsons' other novels have. I am glad I persevered though as it was beautifully written and gripping to the end.