I can’t describe this book any better than what Kate Atkinson herself told an audience at the recent Sydney Writers Festival how she’d described it to her American publisher – its Downton Abbey with Nazis. I hope I can enhance this review by the rare (for me) opportunity to be in that audience and hear Kate Atkinson talk about her new book.
There’s an irresistible temptation to assume you must know what kind of a person a favourite author is from having read their books. In Kate Atkinson’s case, its clear she’s as eloquent, engaging and enthusiastic as the books she writes. For fans, Life After Life delivers more of what we liked in her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum. That’s to say a wide-ranging sprawl of a novel of the anatomy of an English family, this time middle class and living in the home counties in the interwar years. The themes are fate and how destinies spin on the smallest events.
She’s used a technically demanding and reader-challenging structure – she has her main character Ursula Todd, be born and die, over and over again through the story. The result is a persistent layering of more and more detail over the same events as Ursula’s reruns of her life repeat themselves and we get more insight into the same events from a different perspective. We get to experience her birth, for instance, in 11 different ways.
Ursula Todd is the second daughter in a middle-class family living in a house called Fox Hollow located somewhere close to London in an area that is now not far from the London urban sprawl. The other characters, very well drawn, are her mother Sylvie, portrayed at times as a shallow but very proper woman, her father Hugh, a straightforward, loving and decent man, an older brother Maurice, who no-one likes, sister Pamela who is sporty and sensible, and two younger brothers. There’s also the cook, Mrs Glover, the maid Irish Brigid, and Hugh’s sister Izzie who is constantly getting herself into all sorts of trouble.
Ursula is plagued by a constant sense of deja vu as she grows up because of course she is reliving her life over and over again and sensing that’s she’s been to places before. Over the course of the book, we get to see how different her life would have turned out had she reacted differently at key points. For instance, a chance incident in the garden at Fox Hollow leads her alternately to a harmless encounter, or a rape, abortion and then harrowing domestic violence.
But the real set piece of the story is her experience of the London blitz in 1940, which she experiences in, I think, four different ways. And I won’t give away what her various German adventures are, other than to say she meets Hitler. The experience of living through the Blitz I think is one of the most affecting, devastating accounts I’ve read of it. Just how relentless and unremitting the bombing was, the shocking sights people had to see in their homes and streets, and the need to respond to and move on so quickly from death because it was happening so frequently.
Talking about the structure of the book makes it sound very confusing to read but in fact its not if you just give in to it and let her lead you backwards and forwards over the same events. I didn’t try and check back to different takes on the same scene, just went with the flow. Kate Atkinson said she held the structure of the book in her head, and just wrote down details like birth dates so she wouldn’t make mistakes. I find that amazing and I don’t think I could have plotted such a structure without an incredibly detailed excel spreadsheet! But then I guess what she’s done is taken a linear story and split it into pieces, which is easier than trying to put something back together again.
Her characters are very strongly drawn and at times I almost felt they were becoming too stereotypical of themselves, but its made me realise that consistency in the things characters say and their reactions does make them strong.
Kate Atkinson said herself that she loves to create a version of England in her books that doesn’t really exist anymore. She’s done so again in Life After Life with Fox Hollow, which even has a copse and a brook at the back and screams chocolate box scene. The moderator of the session at the Sydney Writers Festival commented that Hilary Mantel has praised Kate Atkinson for her ability to layer her research into a story unobtrusively. I hadn’t finished Life After Life when I went to the session so of course I concentrated on how she incorporated her research all the more once I heard this. At one point in the London blitz scenes she writes ‘The bomb shook the Staffordshire cow-creamers on Miss Woolf’s dresser but they agreed it had landed outside their section,’ and I guess this is an example of how to incorporate period detail into the story without forcing it. I was also very interested in how she dealt withthe detail of historical events. To convey the characters reactions to Hitler’s rise in Germany before 1939, she has Ursula write the details in letters to Pamela, who comments on their significance. This works well and is less forced than having two characters sit around and discuss Hitler so that the detail can be put across to the reader, something I’m struggling with myself in my own novel.
This book also got me thinking about writer’s styles and how each has something they do well and they stick with it. Kate Atkinson doesn’t go in for flights of stylistic prose that are clever, she just writes in her own wry, comedic, bittersweet style and there’s plenty of that in Life After Life. This book is a great story, but be warned, at 544 pages, its a doorstopper.