A few years ago I tried to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I made it 20 or 30 pages in and thought ‘meh,’ and gave up. So when my book club selected it, I was reluctant (sorry book club). And then I was chagrined because this is a terrific read. Sure you have to make it past the initial 30 pages (evidence if you’re ever looking for it that a book should be given a fair shot – whatever that might be – before quitting) and the initial conceit which takes repetition to become clear for the reader: our protagonist, Ursula, can die and be reborn in her same body/family/set of experiences. The novel explores the extent to which her actions can control or change the outcome of her life (and the limits of these choices – how and in what circumstances does she end up right back in the same troubled spot or… dead). There are a few instances where we turn our attention to how other people influence the outcome of our life, but usually this is cast in relation to how Ursula reacts and acts against the other. I did think this was a potential area of conceptual weakness as (to me anyway) it placed too much agency on the individual in relation to an other.
That said, the book does do a masterful job exploring the limits of individual agency in relation to society or community. Ursula is born in England in 1911 and so we witness through her experiences WWI and WWII, with far more attention given to WWII (which makes sense given her age and the narrative point of view). In setting her experience against these historical backdrops, the novel invites readers to play the thought experiment so often brought up in History classes of ‘what if X had changed’ (e.g. Hitler had been killed). (In the case of ‘what if Hitler had been killed the novel is less than subtle and just… plays out ‘what if Hitler had been killed’ in a manner that this reader found a bit too obvious for total enjoyment (in fact, C., at book club raised the idea that this may have been the creative entry point for the author that allowed her to imagine the life after life conceit).
Putting aside the conceptual questions of the novel, I also appreciated the quality of writing that is at once terrific and unpretentious. The exploration of gender is nuanced and provocative. I do think the novel lets questions of class slide easily by (particularly knowing that the post WWI period triggered a mass shift in class structure – the novel dodges by having our patriarch a ‘banker’ and so, presumably, immune to market fluctuation. That is another minor complaint – Hugh (the father) – also fights in WWI and comes back remarkably (okay, impossibly) unscathed in body and mind, perhaps a necessary characterization to allow him to continue to stand as an emotional cornerstone in the eyes of Ursula. But I digress).
All said, I’d encourage you to read the novel if only for the creativity of its plot and conceptual conceit. But I don’t have to leave it at that, I can also encourage you because of its great writing, character development and exploration of gender and history.
Oh and my other book club is taking up God in Ruins (Atkinson’s novel following Life After Life) next month, so stay tuned for review part the second.
I have the stomach flu. I’ve been meaning to write up these separate posts for days, but have instead been subsisting on ginger ale and popsicles and general grumpiness. Cue some commentary about a fitting end to 2016.
I did read two novels over the holidays. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. I have a lot to say about both, but I’m too queasy to muster much, so here’s the abbreviated version for both: don’t bother. Continue reading
It’s easy to see why Andrea Levy’s 2004 monstrously successful Small Island was turned into a BBC mini-series. It has all the right stuff: historical fiction setting of post-WWII London, heady and illicit romance, examination of societal changes in race, class and gender through the small and focused familial experiences of one London home. Ditto why it’s so enjoyable to read. Continue reading
I got a book light in my stocking. How appropriate for the late night staying up to read “just one more chapter” of All the Light We Cannot See. The trouble, of course, is that the chapters in this novel are never more than five page long – most two or three – and so resolving to do “just one more chapter” is a promise to still be reading an hour later. Thankfully I’m on holiday and sleeping in is requisite. If you’re not on holiday you might prepare to be stern with yourself, or accept being a bit groggy eyed as this isn’t a story easily put down.
Appropriate, too for the images in the novel. It’s a story with parallel narratives – that of Marie-Laure, the blind Parisian girl who is a prodigious reader and world-creator, and that of Werner, the starkly Aryan orphan with a prodigious talent for electronics, radio in particular. As their two tales unfold against the backdrop of France under Nazis occupation, we get intricately woven and masterfully described scenes and plot moments with richly imagined conflicts and consequences. Symbolism abounds: diamonds, curses, radios and silence, snow-white hair and 20 000 leagues under the sea: it’s all meant to mean something and to mean so much.
It’s tempting to give this an unqualified endorsement, and I do strongly suspect that if you pick it up, you’ll absolutely enjoy the read (I certainly did). I have to admit a certain reluctance, however, as I found two problems: 1. The characters, while compelling for what they do and for what happens to them, are not, on their own, fully imagined or realized. They certainly experience conflict and are called upon to make heroic or challenging choices, they have complex interactions with other characters, but their interior lives remain opaque and stunted. 2. The ending is entirely too tidy for my taste. Resolved. And the leadup – the climaxes – read with the certainty of resolution. In part the flashback structure – we begin in 1944 and move back and forth in time – promises this kind of conclusion, but I suppose there’s also the structural point that we couldn’t create such intricately woven parallel narratives without having them meet (or that certain assurance that we could not put characters with such extraordinary and exceptional lives in such danger and not have some resolution).
My complaints are more a way of saying while this is a book you’ll enjoy reading (much as anyone can enjoy reading WWII fiction, I suppose) it isn’t without problems. Look past these quibbles and you’ll find yourself reading by whatever light you’ve got – probably something backlit and electronic. Which will, I’m sure you know, ruin your eyes and keep you up all night.