Kate Atkinson – Life After Life

When were you happiest? This is one of those questions that pop up in celebrity questionnaires in weekend colour supplements. The answers are fairly predictable or, at least, the variation in the replies is quite limited. (An alternative question – when were you unhappiest? – would elicit, I reckon, a far greater range of responses. But who would dare ask it?)

We can all look back and pinpoint our happiest times. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa could identify ‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life.’ And that moment was fleeting.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Kate Atkinson plies her craft in Life After Life, to show how lives can swing between misery and happiness almost on a whim, on a chance event, on a minor decision, say, to set our earlier, rather than later, to meet someone at a train station. Her story is forever retracing itself as her characters ‘revisit’ the same events, responding differently each time and thus precipitating vastly different outcomes. It’s no surprise that the novel is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The novel spans both World Wars of the 20th Century as Atkinson skilfully charts the many possible lives of Ursula Todd – from a relatively mundane life to the fantastical, and the tragic. In fact, the author offers several permutations on Ursula’s potential tragic outcomes.

This is a clever novel that disregards the conventional rules of form without alienating the reader. It sets off at a cracking pace so that the reader knows straightaway that this is an experimental/playful novel. In the first pages we confront two possible facts: Ursula dies in childbirth; Ursula survives in childbirth.

I suppose I would have liked the story to continue at this fast early pace but I suspect that would be unsustainable.

What emerges from the novel is a sense that people, on the whole, have an unfathomable ability to move on from tragedy. In that regard, it’s an uplifting read.

In Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? – the only other book of hers that I’ve read – all the main characters experienced tragic events in their backgrounds. (She seems drawn to the dark side.) But Atkinson did not allow those tragedies to define her characters’ personalities. They got on with life. And I detect a clear echo of that same theme in Life After Life.

Will Kate Atkinson win the Women’s Prize for Fiction? In my opinion, it will be tragic if Life After Life doesn’t make the shortlist. Though maybe I shouldn’t use that word so lightly.

What next in Anne’s April Reading Challenge? I’m switching to the Arthur C Clarke Award and I’m now reading one of the six shortlisted novels, namely, NOD by Adrian Barnes.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *