Thursday, 3 April 2014

800th entry: Life After Life, Book After Book

the book: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

published 2013









Pamela liked to dress Bosun up in an old bonnet and shawl and pretend that he was her baby, although they had a real baby now – a boy, Edward. Everyone called him Teddy. Their mother seemed taken by surprise by the new baby. ‘I don’t know where he came from.’ Sylvie had a laugh like a hiccup. She was taking tea on the lawn with two schoolfriends ‘from her London days’ who had come to inspect the new arrival. All three of them wore lovely flimsy dresses and big straw hats and sat in the wicker chairs, drinking tea and eating Mrs Glover’s sherry cake. Ursula and Bosun sat on the grass a polite distance away, hoping for crumbs. Maurice had put up a net and was trying, not very enthusiastically, to teach Pamela how to play tennis. Ursula was occupied in making a daisy-chain coronet for Bosun. She had stubby, clumsy fingers. Sylvie had the long, deft fingers of an artist or a pianist. She played on the piano in the drawing room (‘ Chopin’).






observations: There was originally a faint disappointment that Kate Atkinson hadn’t produced another Jackson Brodie book, but now, not a word of complaint about this superbly clever novel: inventive, compulsively readable and beautifully worked-out - an ideal choice to mark 800 entries on the blog.

The set-up is well-known now (and instantly obvious once you start reading) so this is not a spoiler: the book tells the story of Ursula, born into middle-class comfort in 1910. But Atkinson imagines many different lives for her – so she dies (‘darkness fell’) and then we hear another version of her story, where she may live longer, or for less time. The threads are woven together – as the chapter ends you have to check where the next one will put Ursula, which version of the story this is. But I didn’t find any difficulty with that at all – there was the odd unresolved moment (what about that gold cigarette case?) and a few questions left over at the end (who was Angela?) but that was fine. It seemed as though Atkinson had done all the work, so we could enjoy the end result. And also, enjoy the jokes, the subversive comments, the hints and allusions. Lines like this: ‘Sylvie was pleasantly surprised by her elder daughter’s capacity for monotony. It would stand her in good stead for her life to come.’ The little boy ‘hunched against the weather, a small, stalwart Knight Templar in his knitted grey balaclava.’ The characters, despite all the changes in their fates, are real and knowable.


Ursula sometimes has glimpses of her other lives, and these sections are particularly compelling, as she tries to change the future, without really knowing what she is doing.

She might be like Unity Mitford (both have a sister called Pamela) – a friend of Hitler. And like Jessica Mitford, who had a plan to kill Hitler. There are memories of Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who lived in Germany throughout the Second World War. The descriptions of the war – in Berlin and in London – are astonishing, they carry complete conviction, and surely must be the result of considerable research. (The first floor lounge of the Charing Cross Hotel was obviously a feature of those days - I had recently been reading about it in Matthew Sweet’s The West End Front).

Altogether, a stunning book, highly recommended.

And as Ursula has many lives, a few pictures of garden tea-parties seemed justified. Bottom to top: by Edward Cucuel (who painted a lot of women in a lot of gardens), 
by Frederick Frieseke (featured before on the blog here and here),  and by Wilson Henry Irvine (as blog friend Lucy Fisher said here recently, ‘Those American three-name painters are so good, aren't they!)’ Surprisingly hard to find straw hats in pictures of the right era – they may not have known about melanoma, but did they not want pale complexions?

27 comments:

  1. Those Mitford's get everywhere. Rubbishy embargo or not - not for me thanks.

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    1. So actually I'm HELPING you by doing lots of books that mention Mitfords? Duly noted, and I will graciously accept your thanks.

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    2. Indeed....too late for this year but 2015, I could give up acquiring books for Lent, you could give up the Mitfords?

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    3. It'll be easier for me than for you, so of course I'll say yes!

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  2. Moira - I like Atkinson's style very much, and she is a clever writer. So I'm not surprised she chose this particular approach to telling a story. It's innovative! And that tea scene is so evocative I think. And interesting direction for Atkinson to try.

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    1. I find it hard to define what I like so much about Kate Atkinson - but I really really do! (of course being clever, witty and innovative might have something to do with it...)

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  3. Moira, congratulations on your 800th post about a book that sounds really nice. I have never read Kate Atkinson and I know I'd do well to read her books.

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    1. Thanks Prashant. I think she is a great writer, and has done some quite different styles of books - I'm sure you would find something you like!

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  4. There's a really glorious pinterest board that provides a nice sort of visual annotated notes for the book here: http://www.pinterest.com/whatshalliread/life-after-life-kate-atkinson/
    I loved this book to a ridiculous degree. Now eagerly looking forward to the film-- the novel is being adapted by Esta Spalding and Semi Chellas and I'm very curious how they will manage the story.
    Here's the review I wrote when it came out. Read the book twice then and may read it again now! http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/new-kate-atkinson-novel-takes-seductive-approach-to-time/article10799347/
    Funny about the straw hats. Perhaps they all took them off when they saw a portraitist approaching?

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    1. Thanks for two great links Sara, that Pinterest board is amazing, and I really enjoyed your review - you expressed many of the thoughts that I had about the book. I had no idea there was going to be a film - but the 'fade to black' trope will fit in well won't it?! And thanks for your continuing support for the blog, and your being the ideal reader.

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    2. It's been such a pleasure reading your posts, Moira. Don't think I've read all 800 but I do like to come here and wander, revisiting old favourites and finding new books I must read.

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  5. Moira: Well done on 800 posts. You will be over 1,000 by the end of the year!

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    1. Now that really does sound like a lot. I can't quite believe that I've done 800 really, the time has whizzed by....

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  6. I loved Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books, so I know I will read this someday, but I was not sure if I would like it.

    Question 1: It is described as historical fiction most often at Goodreads, but it sounds more fantasy or sci fi. What do you think?

    Question 2: have you read any of her non-Brodie books and do you recommend any or all? I think I have all of them.

    Wow, 800 posts. In roughly the same amount of time I have done less than half that many. I am impressed. A lot of work goes into each of your entries.

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    1. 1 - I would think historical rather than sci fi or fantasy, I know it sounds odd, but although the book keeps jumping around, it's rooted in reality.
      2 - I liked Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I liked Emotionally Weird (but partly because I thought it painted a very real picture of a very specific kind of British student life at a certain time). I did NOT like Human Croquet, it's the only book of hers I didn't enjoy.
      Thanks for the kind words - making new friends has been one of the best bits of having the blog.

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    2. Thanks for your thoughts on her other books... Interesting about Human Croquet.

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    3. Oh my. For me, Human Croquet is the one I LOVE with a passion and it's firmly in my Top Three - I lent it to my then boyfriend at the time and he loved it too. (And I may have just answered your puzzlement.)

      Was this post really over a year ago?

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    4. It's been a long time since I read it, I might be being unfair! I love her others so much it seems odd I disliked one.
      I feel as though I wrote it about 2 months ago!

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    5. I've just re-read Human Croquet, and it's amazing how much there is in it that was revisited/expanded on for Ursula and Teddy's stories. I also had forgotten HOW many turns of phrase/lines there are in there that had entered my own everyday language. But it was so startling to me to be re-reading this book after quite a few years - maybe I am used to KA's style now, but it did strike me that Human Croquet shows a LOT of themes and ideas that were revisited in Life after Life. I also had to remind myself while reading it that it was all VERY new and innovative and exciting to me when I first read it, and that I'd never actually read anything quite like it at the time before - which is why I loved it so much,and even though it feels very familiar now (and I can see why you might not have cared for some of it), I still really enjoyed revisiting it.

      I just had to come back and comment on this post again, even though it's almost 2 years since the last comments!!

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    6. Oh Daniel, you are determined to make me give Human Croquet another chance aren't you? And you are doing a very good job... One of these days...If I re-read the later books it would be a good moment to try HC again.

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  7. Can't wait to get the book - and my goodness, congrats on the amazing number - roll on to the 1,000 mark!

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    1. Thanks Sergio, for that tip of the fedora. I'm sure you'll like the book, it's a good one.

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  8. So glad you wrote a rave review of this book, which I've had on my TBR list for a few months, and wasn't sure about it.
    Yvette over at Yvette Can Draw also wrote a smashing review of this book.
    And a friend, who has very strict standards for books, also recommended it.
    I am bending towards reading it. At first, the plot elements of different life scenarios for the main character turned me off, as a reader who likes to stay within my comfort zone.
    But I've read such praise for this book that I really must try it.
    Congratulations on your huge success with this blog and the 800th post.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Kathy. I felt that this plot could have not worked well, or been extremely tiresome, in other hands, but Kate Atkinson really had the ability to bring it off. I hope you enjoy it if you do try it - of course we all have different reactions to books.

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  9. Congratulations on your milestone post. It's one of your best ever, too. Love the images--such life and texture, and make me loooong for summer--and am taking to heart your recommendation of Kate Atkinson. I've heard buzz about Life after Life, and it's on my to-read list. Now I'll bump it up for sure.

    Keep up the great reading and posting.

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    1. Thanks for lovely kind words and all support, Lara. And I very much hope you enjoy the book.

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