I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll bore you all to tears by saying it again, I am not one for hype. The one sure-fire way to put me off a book, any book, is when I hear people gushing about it on every corner, even more so when it’s a blogger mentioning it in every single post. Call me crazy, it just starts me thinking – it really can’t be that good, can it?
Yet again I have been proven wrong and clearly need to learn my lesson. The only way I was ever going to pick up Kate Atkinson’s much-raved about and prize-winning novel Life After Life was if the Manchester Book Club picked it out for discussion….and they did!
The opening scene of this novel really has to be the most gripping I have read so far this year, with our heroine, Ursula Todd, levelling a revolver at Hitler’s face. Yes. The Führer himself. Now Atkinson has our firm attention, we travel back in space and time to the snowy English countryside, where, at a cottage delightfully named ‘Fox Corner’, Sylvie Todd awaits the birth of her third child. As the local doctor desperately fights through the snow to reach the expectant mother, the child is still-born, the umbilical cord gripped around her neck. The next chapter sees us return to a staggeringly similar scene, the baby on her way, though this time the doctor makes it through and we all live happily ever after…for a while that is.
Ursula’s ‘second chances’ at life come, perhaps unsurprisingly, more frequently in childhood. As she grows and her different choices allow us to witness lives in both war-torn Berlin and London, that nagging sense of déjà vu gradually transforms into a realisation far more terrifying and one that will set Ursula off on a track that could alter the history of the entire world.
When I was a child I absolutely adored those ‘choose your own story’ books (can you still get those!? If so do they do adult versions?) and this wonderful, imaginative novel gave me that excitement all over again, albeit with Kate Atkinson making the myriad of choices on my behalf. Some have said they found the first section (snow, birth, death, snow, birth, death, ad infinitum) confusing but I really don’t see that. This tiny life of a baby in its various permutations was actually a period I could have remained with for a bit longer.
Atkinson’s imagination clearly knows no bounds. The opportunity to explore the numerous possible facets of one woman’s life during such a seismic period in history is unmissable and gave our little group oh so much to talk about. Have any of us almost died and, if we had, what would we have missed? What decisions in our own lives have we made that have clearly altered us entirely? Ursula’s groundhog life explores all this. Events such as rape, war and subterfuge keep us gripped, with a brutal portrait of domestic violence proving the most harrowing and effective of all.
This is clearly the writing of a dab hand and is meticulously planned. A novel that could have become massively confusing under another pen. (We’ll bypass the bits where I clearly wasn’t concentrating properly and became confused. It really doesn’t count.) Although the Hitler assassination theme seemed slightly farcical at first, it really is all good fun and the portrait of Blitz-era London is, without a doubt, the best I have ever read (and that is with a lot to choose from). Certain scenes created visceral imagery that is just so exact and will simply never leave me. Superb.
As a solid juxtaposition to the disquieting is the anchor of ‘Fox Corner’; the utterly English, comfortably rural Todd family home where Ursula grows up and the only place that appears quite timeless, regardless of the drama surrounding it. It is a type of cosy domesticity that Atkinson writes so so well and the many scenes there were just a lovely woolly blanket to wrap myself up in whilst readying myself for some time travel.
This is bob-on historical fiction and the perfect book club book. Upon hearing the boyfriend’s mother bemoan her inability to find anything decent to read I pressed this into her hand. I do hope she enjoys it as much as I did…..though she is still stuck on those first few chapters!
Snowy gateway to heaven by Earthwatcher via Flickr