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Life After Life Hardcover – 14 Mar 2013
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"Kate Atkinson’s new novel is a box of delights. Ingenious in construction, indefatigably entertaining, it grips the reader’s imagination on the first page and never lets go. If you wish to be moved and astonished, read it. And if you want to give a dazzling present, buy it for your friends." (Hilary Mantel)
There aren't enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane.
" (Gillian Flynn,no1 New York Times author of Gone Girl, and Sharp Objects)
Simply put: it's ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS I'VE READ THIS CENTURY.
"Truly brilliant...Think of Audrey Niffenegger's The TimeTraveler's Wife or David Nicholl's One Day...[or] Martin Amis's Times Arrow, his rewinding of the Holocaust that was shortlisted for the Booker. Life After Life should have the popular success of the former and deserves to win prizes, too. It has that kind of thrill to it, of an already much-loved novelist taking a leap, and breaking through to the next level...This is a rare book that you want, Ursula-like, to start again the minute you have finished." (Helen Rumbelow The Times)
"What makes Atkinson an exceptional writer – and this is her most ambitious and most gripping work to date – is that she does so with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. 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." (Alex Clark Guardian)
"Merging family saga with a fluid sense of time and an extraordinarily vivid sense of history at its most human level. A dizzying and dazzling tour de force." (Amber Pearson Daily Mail)
Winner of the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Women's Prize, Kate Atkinson's stunning new novel, about a woman who lives through the most turbulent events of the 20th century, including the London Blitz, and which asks: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?See all Product description
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The effect of this device is that the reader will wonder all the time how each life is going to end. For me the result was that, for all the quality of the writing, whether humorous or terrifying, I was initially somewhat impatient reading about what happened before each death. Not always, though, especially not in the later, longer chapters (there is a great variety in length) when the scenes in Ursula’s life, unrelated to the deaths at the end, are so well done that I would forget thinking about the inevitable end.
Kate Atkinson skilfully evokes the changing atmosphere of England between 1910, when Ursula was born and 1967 when she met the last of her deaths. (I make it twelve or possibly thirteen deaths altogether.) Atkinson is particularly good at evoking what England was like during the two World Wars and their after-effects. A major part of the novel is set in London during the air raids of the 1940s, with lengthy descriptions of grimly graphic scenes. They are so vividly described that one imagines Kate Atkinson must have experienced such raids; but she was born six years after the end of the Second World War; and she tells us in an Epilogue how she learnt what it was like.
There are equally vivid descriptions of air raids on Berlin, for Ursula also spent part of one of her lives in Nazi Germany. She had visited it in 1933 during what was to be a year abroad (though elsewhere, near the end of the book, her visit was in 1930, before Hitler came to power; and in that version of her life she would really have changed the course of world history). The daughter of the Bavarian family where she lodged in 1933 had been at Kindergarten with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; and Ursula was frequently up in Berchtesgaden and observed Hitler’s way of life there. In that life Ursula married a German, took German citizenship and had a little daughter. In that life, she is in Germany all through the war.
The sequence of the deaths is, disconcertingly to me, not chronological. The first death recorded is in 1930, when Ursula is 20 years old; this is followed by the earliest four deaths, which are between 1910 and 1918, when she was still a child. In those chapters we get little idea of what Ursula (unlike her hyperactive elder brother Maurice who will grow up to be a rather dislikeable character) was like. The fifth death suddenly takes us to 1947; then it’s 1923, and so on. In some lives, terrible and/or sad things happen to Ursula: in one life, she has a quite horrendous marriage to a violently abusive man. Dreadful things happen also to other characters in the book. A few of them die in one of Ursula’s lives, but are still alive in another, later, life of hers.
One of the features of the novel are the many quotations from literature.
The book is very long. As in her earlier novel, “Behind the Scenes in the Museum” (see my Amazon review), there is far too large a cast of characters whom one tries to remember, although many of them turn out to be quite marginal; and even some of those who play a bigger role are not really developed as characters. But Ursula’s father, Hugh, is a lovely man; while her bourgeois mother, Sylvie, becomes steadily less likeable as the story proceeds. Another vivid character is that of Ursula’s modern and irresponsible aunt Izzie.
Simply put, this novel takes the notion of having different possibilities open to you throughout life and puts the main protagonist in amongst a wealth of alternatives, the principle storyline looking at the Second World war through both an English and German perspective. The idea may seem too eccentric to work but Kate Atkinson pulls the ideas off with aplomb.
For me, there are two elements of great story telling. There first is to create such strong characters that we know who they are when speaking because their voices come out so strongly in the dialogue. All the characters in this book are terrific , whether it is the flaky Irish housemaid Bridget or my particular favourite, the incorrigible aunt and authoress, Izzy who surely deserves a book of her own. The other component is having the sensation of being plunged in to a world where the people and places seem real and who you feel sad to leave behind when you finish the book.
Kate Atkinson has tapped in to something truly wonderful in this book and whilst both this and "A God in ruins" ultimately reveal a more shocking face of 20th century life than initially supposed in the two differing accounts of the Second World War from the perspective of both the bomber and the bombed, there seem enough potential in the little world she has created to make another visit to Fox Corner highly desirable. This is a fantastic novel.
Which is a shame, as there are some lovely moments of writing and life here. I found it an easy-to-read writing style that's harrowing, amusing and movingly poignant in places; the rest of the time felt a lot like waiting for the really good bit to happen, and it never did.
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Part of the joy of reading this book is wondering what small changes will make the biggest difference. The blurb suggests that Ursula will attempt to change history and make a big difference. However, the novel is almost exclusively about her life and the small changes that affect it, which makes for a really interesting story!
Another thing that makes the book so compelling is that Ursula doesn't seem to know that these re-dos are happening apart from a strange sense of deja vu.
This is such a interesting concept because most "alternate history" books deal with the major events.
A wonderfully interesting novel. I'm looking forward to reading more from this author.
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