Friday, 19 December 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I’ve not read Kate Atkinson before; she’ was in that list of novelists that I’ve always meant to have a look at. I had been told that ‘Behind The Scenes of a Museum’ is worth having a look at, but to be honest there has always been something else that I wanted to or had to read. This book was personally recommended to me, right up your street, I was told. That always intrigues me of course, a) because of the potential subject matter and b) is the person recommending the book correct in the assessment?

Well, here we have Life After Life. This is story of Ursula Todd born in 1910 in the snow; the book follows her life through the two world wars. Except that is not really accurate, it follows her lives up to and through the two world wars. You see the clue is in the title, Life After Life, it’s her life repeated again and again. It’s the chances her subconscious has to eliminate catastrophic events from the course of her life. This struck a chord with me; I mean who hasn’t wished for this to happen?

I suppose there are a number of philosophies and theories on display here. People have talked about points in time where we reach a pivotal point where one course would mean one thing and the second another. There’s multi universe theory where all of these possibilities are played out across the multitude of universes that are thought to be possibly out there. There are, of course, theories of reincarnation where beings die and are reborn. This is different though, this is the same person born again and again, and it’s almost as if there’s some kind of natural selection in play here; being the survival of the fittest Ursula.

I’m not in a position to check but the book seemed very well researched. Kate Atkinson has been doing this long enough to know how to do all that background work and also to weave in all that knowledge without it looking arduous and clunky. She has a great knack of writing the lives of children without the reader being mired in sentimentality. That’s all about portraying true emotion and not cloying or coddling. Due to the subject matter the book, of course, does not fit into the framework of beginning, middle and end; or maybe it does, hang on a minute!

It could be argued that the book is ultimately depressing. The Catholic Church calls life on Earth, the veil of tears, before they get to heaven, and from their perspective this would almost be hell. Ursula is born to a privileged family and often has an awful time in her life. She spends her early adult life in the Second World War and goes through a variety of awful experiences. The book does well it not romanticising the war at all. To live through the war once must have been bad enough but to do so a number of times?

I’m not sure that this is a great work of literature; it is however very well paced. It does the job of connecting with the reader and enabling the reader to empathise with Ursula. It does this without resorting to over sentimentality. I like the way that of course there are the different possibilities and then other possibilities that she misses within those. At one point in World War Two someone remarks on Ursula’s ability to solve crossword puzzles and she dismisses him out of hand. It’s an engaging, effective and affecting book, efficiently written and would qualify for A Good Read on Radio 4. What I have to do now is to work out whether I have read this book in a previous life.