Archive for March, 2014

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.’

If the Amazon description of Life After Life is not enough to whet a reader’s appetite, then the deliriously enthusiastic reviews from other great contemporary writers does the job. But does the book live up to the blurb?

Six of us met at The Barrels to share our thoughts – or had that discussion already taken place? If so, we vowed to discuss again, only better!

It very soon became clear that, for our members at least, Life After Life was a ‘Marmite’ book. Some of us loved it and some of us really disliked it. Martin wrote,
‘I have read and enjoyed everything else she has written. In previous works I was delighted by her crafting of several seemingly unrelated stories into a seamless whole.
The blurb describes the book as allowing several attempts at living your life until you finally got it right. It implied some volition on the part of the subject who seemed to die needlessly at birth at the whim of circumstance. There was a suggestion of some sort of relationship with Hitler but no sense of if her assassination was successful and what the consequences were.
I have the sense of a collection of ideas which were unfulfilled, cobbled together in a hurry. Did she have a book contract to fulfil and sent this in disgust so she could get on with a more interesting project?
Was her editor on holiday?
Could do better and has, often.’

Anne was of a similar opinion. She had expected great things because of Kate Atkinson’s reputation but, still only part-way through the novel, she was finding it boring in style and – in a neat ‘on-topic’ reference to the hours in a life – felt that there were not enough hours in her life to waste time reading the rest of this book.

One frustration of the ‘dislikers’ was the lack of answers to narrative questions – for instance, did or didn’t Ursula assassinate Hitler? – and the repetitive ‘back to the start’ nature of the structure.

For the ‘likers’ – or should I say ‘lovers’- of the book, this was not an issue; they were too busy enjoying the, as Glynis put it, ‘playful and clever’ exploration of time, of a life re-lived, and of the sometimes unexpected ‘butterfly effects’ of changing one small detail. Paula thought this was the best book she had ever read. She was totally wrapped up in each variation, and devastated at the deaths of some of her favourite characters. Bronwen thought it was illuminating in its randomness.

We all particularly enjoyed the section set in the London Blitz, which contained some of our favourite characters. Other stand-out characters were Izzie the wayward aunt, Ursula’s father Hugh, and Ursula herself – particularly the way she changed/developed in each re-telling, for instance becoming more damaged after the ‘life’ when she was raped as a teenager, became pregnant, had an abortion and subsequently thought of herself as ‘worthless’ enough to stay with and, eventually, be murdered by abusive husband Derek.

We spent a long time discussing the implications of each re-lived life and the ‘practice makes perfect’ phrase used several times in the book. The one life where Ursula lived until 1967 as a lonely single woman particularly intrigued us. I loved the very moving passage towards the end, when Ursula finally realises she is a ‘witness’ and all the thematic imagery of snow, the silver hare, the dancing leaves and the darkness are brought together in a stand-out piece of writing. Ursula embraces all her past lives, friends and family and ‘her heart swelled with the high holiness of it all. Imminence was all around. She was both warrior and shining spear. She was a sword glinting in the depths of night, a lance of light piercing the darkness. There would be no mistakes this time (…) A clock struck somewhere in sympathy. She thought of Teddy and Miss Woolf, of Roland and little Angela, of Nancy and Sylvie. She thought of Dr Kellett and Pindar. Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness.’.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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