Monday, August 12, 2013

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

No review could do justice to Kate Atkinson's magnum opus. Life after Life defies description as it's grander and more imaginatively brilliant than simple words can depict. Atkinson takes the many lives of Ursula Todd and strings them together like graduated pearls on a necklace in her novel of destiny and “what might have been.” Ursula Todd was born on a snowy 1910 evening in the English countryside and she died before her first breath because the doctor couldn't get there in time to save her BUT on the very next page on that same night the doctor did arrive and Ursula lived. She lived only to die again, over and over again, in countless ways. Yet she lived again to save the world, to suffer immeasurable losses, to make good and bad choices, to fall by chance into a Pandora's Box packed with opportunities and crises, and throughout it all to mesmerize this reader.

Ursula should be an impossible character to reveal as she constantly changes and doesn't always suffer, grow or learn from the consequences of what she does or what's done to her.
What if she really had killed Hitler in 1930 near the novel's beginning? What if she'd taken an earlier path home one day? These and other questions make the reader's mind spin at the beginning only to settle into the unexpected rhythm of the book's constant changes in time and place. Yes, it takes a few chapters to enter that rhythm but once there it's magical.

Ursula's childhood home with a mother who epitomizes the old-fashioned sort who lives for her children and a father who loves all of them and calls her “little bear” should be idyllic yet bad things keep happening there. Their home is called Fox Corners and a magnificent section titled “Like a Fox in a Hole” shows a full cast of prey and predators. Rabbits and foxes abound with rabbits even finding their way onto the book's sumptuous blue endpapers. Atkinson's publisher sought out a William Morris wallpaper for them and it turned out to be Atkinson's own dining room wallpaper. Perhaps seeing it daily influenced her use of the creatures.

In adulthood, Ursula works with a crew that goes in after bombings in London's blitz and Atkinson is at her best in setting these scenes. In one incident Ursula and her companion were “both terribly down in spirits” as one of their compatriots, a bank manager had been killed by a delayed-action bomb and they attempted to move him: Ursula took his shoulders and her co-worker his ankles and “Mr. Palmer's body came apart like a Christmas cracker.”

Ursula's ruminations on war infuse the book with historical and cultural references that set the primary theme of living as if there's no tomorrow as in this conversation with her brother Teddy:
And the poor Germans, I doubt many of them are in favor of war. . . But if we had lost the Great War and been burdened with great debt just as the world's economy collapsed then perhaps we too would have been a tinderbox awaiting the strike of a flint --”

No point in thinking,” she said briskly, “you just have to get on with life. . . We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”

What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?”

I think it would be exhausting. I would quote Nietzsche at you but you would probably thump me.”

Probably,” he said amiably. “He's a Nazi, isn't he?”

If Atkinson were a less gifted writer, we would want to “thump” her for her literary conceits but they work so well that the reader relishes them as an alternate reality.

Summing it Up: Read Atkinson's magnum opus for the splendid writing and to enter a brilliant world that will take you through the first half of the twentieth century and make you contemplate life if there were second chances. Think of this book as a necklace – entirely circular with each bead telling a different story.

Rating: 5 stars

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date: April 2, 2013

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