Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'Life After Life' by Kate Atkinson

11 June 2013

As regular readers will know, I’ve read the entire output of the contemporary novelist Kate Atkinson, so I had eagerly awaited her latest book ‘Life After Life’. Taking a break from the Jackson Brodie detective novels (such as ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’, reviewed here in April 2011), ‘Life After Life’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Fenella Woolgar) feels like a return to the family saga format of Kate Atkinson’s award-winning debut ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. ‘Life After Life’ covers an earlier era than its predecessor, starting in 1910 with the birth of its protagonist, Ursula Todd. And ‘Life After Life’ is a family saga with a twist: in the opening pages Ursula dies before she can take her first breath, strangled by the umbilical cord. But then we rewind and imagine how the scene might have played out differently, with the baby surviving. And this forms the pattern for the book, with Ursula’s life cut unfairly short through a series of childhood accidents, only for her to find a way past each obstacle the next time around. Atkinson enjoys this extended Groundhog Day structure, taking a mischievous delight in making the reader wonder whether Ursula will ever make it out of infancy. But this tale of the parallel lives that we might have led takes on a growing poignancy as Ursula appears to use some distant memory of her previous lives not just to preserve herself but also to try to save her family and friends from the hand of fate. (The love story of Teddy and Nancy which plays out in the background of the novel forms an engaging thread through the story of Ursula’s life.) It was interesting that as you get used to Ursula’s apparent immortality, the next time she gets into a difficult or dangerous situation you begin to stop worrying for her because you can relax in the realisation that danger will be averted by death and rebirth. Then Atkinson pulls the rug from under the reader by having Ursula survive and have to suffer the after-effects of illness or injury – making you realise that sometimes it’s much harder to go on living. ‘Life After Life is a very clever, charming and moving tale of foxes, bears and wolves.



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