Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother’s. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson’s opus.
Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize, Waterstone’s Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.
This is a magnificent and wonderful book.
Recapping the premise briefly, because I’m sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd – Little Bear – is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish ‘flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.
It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson’s writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!
There are certain fixed points in Ursula’s narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings – the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula’s life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which – as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country – is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars… and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.
The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.
And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.
Ursula’s time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device – if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? – seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson’s depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.
Atkinson’s writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this
“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”
Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose
“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.
or jarring images of Mrs Glover’s tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula’s first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence
“To Pamela’s surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held.”
All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison.