Sunday, March 17, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE: Kate Atkinson

My book group in Michigan read Kate Atkinson's newest novel as our March selection. It is very different indeed from her last four novels, which featured the much loved Jackson Brodie. My group has been together, with the occasional exit or entrance, for 12 years, reading perhaps 120 books over that time. We vary what we read: current novels, non-fiction books, short story collections, plays, classics. We have between 6 and 10 women at each meeting and try hard to stick to a discussion of the book, looking at the plot, character, writing style, symbolism, trying to notice how a book captures a particular period of history or an issue we care about. We are of similar age and bring a common sensibility and history to the discussion.

LIFE AFTER LIFE came to us an an arc from Little, Brown, just before its official publication date. I was the only group member who had read Kate Atkinson before so the group was unfamiliar with her as an writer. This novel was different from the others (or from any other book I have read) and for a time it felt a bit remote stylistically, difficult even.

So I started over again at another reader's suggestion. And this time I felt like Saul on the road to Damascus. I could hardly turn the pages fast enough.

The quote below, (and Atkinson calls upon philosophers quite often in her work) is apt.

They say that Euripides gave Socrates a copy of Heraclitus' book and asked him what he thought of it. He replied: "What I understand is splendid; and I think what I don't understand is so too - but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it."*

LIFE AFTER LIFE is the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1910, and dead the same day. Except in the multitude of narratives presented after that first one, (often in just a page), she survives and goes on, only to die again and again in the various ways children and 20th century people died. In some of the new or alternate histories, Ursula remembers (in some indefinable way) enough of the last life, to stave off death or misfortune. Except when she doesn't. Or when things go awry in another way entirely. We come to know Ursula's childhood in great detail. We get a complete picture of an upper-middle class family, mostly devoted to each other, before and between the wars.

Later, the book spends a lot of time on the Blitz, and its impact on Ursula is profound. Indeed these are some of the most heart-rending passages.Ursula Todd forfeits much in LIFE AFTER LIFE to pursue a larger goal. I will leave it to you to find out what that goal is. And whether she is successful.

Of the six of us who read the book, four found it brilliant, magical, funny, charming, and transcendent. An incredible expression of imagination, research and gifted writing on the part of Atkinson. The other two readers admired the writing, the themes, the evocation of wartime London, but found the repetition of incidents and the alternative narratives difficult to permeate. They prefer more linear concrete plots.

The discussion of LIFE AFTER LIFE was by far the longest discussion of a book we have ever had. And we have read many serious books like: MADAME BOVARY, 1000 YEARS OF SOLITUDE, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and on and on. But with this book, Atkinson's method of telling the story was as interesting and novel as the characters and plot. I think this is the first time we have paid method very much attention.And you will certainly find Atkinson's a powerful part of the novel.

For me, the point of the book was not to keep close track of these alternate narratives in any systematic way. If you as a reader are able to let go of that idea, to let the text wash over you, to absorb what Atkinson is trying to say, to admire her cleverness in style, to luxuriate in her philosophical references, in her notions of what women in the 20th century endured, the symbolism, the way she imbued every character with life, depth and, for the most part, loveliness, LIFE AFTER LIFE will fill you up. 

I can't think of a better book written over the last decade.  

*After a bit of research into "Delian divers," I can say that the quote is regarded by philosophers as mostly metaphorical in that the people from Delos were known for clarity of thought, but it also an allusion to the Delian diver being seemingly immune to drowning in the depths.


Charles Gramlich said...

For a moment there I thought Joyce Carol Oates was writing novels under the name Kate Atkinson.

Anonymous said...

Patti - What an interesting approach to a novel. Atkinson innovates, which I really respect about her. I'm so glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.

J F Norris said...

Looks like the crime writers are using 2013 to escape the confines of genre. William Kent Krueger's latest (a review copy was sent to me last month) is very different from his private eye novels, too, but nowhere near as daring in it s approach as this book. Atkinson's book is the very kind of novel I am drawn to when I need a break from routine genre fiction. But we'll have to wait until next month to buy a copy -- not released until April 2.

Todd Mason said...

And some day you should read THE DEATH MACHINE, aka ROGUE MOON, by Algis Budrys...and please let me know what you think if you do.

George said...

After I read Stephen King's review this morning, I ordered that Joyce Carol Oates book.