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An ever-turning wheel – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

 

 

 

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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday     $27.99

Life After Life was published early in the year and is a book I have intended to read for a while. And as we approach the end of 2013, it seems appropriate to review a book which comments on death and rebirth, offering alternate slices of life and a “Sliding Doors” approach to narrative and character. It’s especially meaningful to me, as I’ve just written a play in which six diverse characters confront their mortality and attitudes to death in very different ways.

Most books have a composite set of characters at their centre. And even if the novel progresses through flashbacks, jumbled juxtaposition of time frames or mixed points of view, there is usually some kind of progression in which we view them holistically.

Atkinson turns traditional story-telling on its head. Her heroine Ursula Todd (interestingly, ‘tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’) dies over and over again. First, she’s a baby in 1910, strangled with her mother’s umbilical cord one freezing winter’s night; we then see her as a toddler when she dies again, victim of a freak accident. A few years later Ursula is resurrected, but drowns helplessly on a family seaside trip; she succumbs to the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Other incarnations see her murdered by a psychotic husband and killed in the London blitz of 1942.

Her lives riff and intertwine like musical variations on a theme, and indeed the novel has a jazzy, improvised feel with leitmotifs abounding – many chapters end with the words “darkness fell”. Snow provides the silent background for both death and rebirth.  In one life, the teenage Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant to her brother’s American friend and undergoes a backstreet abortion; yet in another life, a bashful kiss is her only physical interaction. One episode’s full stop is another episode’s near-miss or ellipsis.

In each of her lives Ursula grows a little older, before succumbing to the next, inevitable, conclusion. This drives the novel forward and delivers surprise after surprise. Some are harder to swallow than others –  in one of her many existences, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in Germany and then assassinates Hitler in a Berlin café.  We last see Ursula in the 1960s – as such, the novel sweeps panoramically through much of the 20th century, tackling the shifts of political and social change.

The one stable element is the family home, Fox Corner, an idealised portrait of British upper middle class life. It is a sanctuary, a still point in a turning world that threatens with danger and unpredictability. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread for her early novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum and is well-known for her crime novels, Case Histories, writes with elegance and restraint, capturing the domestic flavours of everyday life as well as the tragedies of war. A poached egg is “a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”. Ursula lives through the London bombings, as a fire warden, and in the morgues is sickened by the “macabre jigsaw” of limbs and torsos, “the crushed fragments of human lives, never to be whole again.” Ursula in each life lived, is also attempting to reach some kind of wholeness.

The alternate endings, both happy and sad, allow the reader to contemplate Ursula’s fate through diversely refracted lights. This is exciting, innovative, and takes storytelling into a fresh medium of possibility.  Less satisfactory is Atkinson’s attempts to explain the rationale for this process. At one point Ursula’s mother, frustrated at her daughter’s strange behaviour and frequent flashes of déjà-vu, trots her off to a psychiatrist, Dr Kellet. Subsequent discussions between doctor and patient about reincarnation, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and whether it’s possible to live your life again and again “until you get it right” appear forced, as if justifying the novel’s structure and narrative drive.

Readers invariably care for the characters they get to know and worry about what happens to them. The question has to be asked whether readers  empathise with a heroine whose life paths constantly morph into different realities. It’s to Kate Atkinson’s credit and a tribute to her skill as a writer that we believe completely in Ursula, life after life.

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Books Now! on Vacation and a Guest Blog Spot

Books Now! is now on holiday and my next post will be (flights permitting) on 28 July.

In the meantime, I’m delighted to introduce a Guest Spot by my fellow blogger Grace, from the great blog Cultural Life (http://culturallife.wordpress.com). She’s reviewing a recent classic, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. It’s a fascinating choice – Némirovsky’s a somewhat controversial figure in her native France. Although she died in Auschwitz in 1942, many historians now judge her harshly: the irony is she appears to have actively courted the French establishment to publish her works in the 1930s and many of her novels, including the notorious Daniel Goldfarb, are quite anti-Semitic themselves. Despite this, Suite Française is an extraordinary account of a country in turmoil, and I thank Grace very much for selecting it.

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Pictured:  Irène Némirovsky in the 1930s

In 2004, a novel was posthumously published in France, over half a century after the author’s death.  It became a bestseller and to date, over 2.5 million copies have been sold.  Suite Française is a book with an extraordinary story behind it. Set in France during the Second World War, it is an epic story of love, pain, conflict and hope.

Its author, Irène Némirovsky, was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1903.  Later, she moved to Russia with her parents where they lived until the Revolution broke out and her father, a wealthy banker, was forced to go into hiding by the Bolsheviks.  After travelling to Finland and Sweden, the Némirovsky family sought refuge in France, where Irène was free to pursue her love of reading and writing, studying literature at the Sorbonne and graduating with a distinction.  In 1926, she married a banking executive, Michel Epstein, and they had two daughters: Denise and Elisabeth.   For Irène and her family, life was happy until the ominous threat of the Second World War.  Despite their conversion to Catholicism in 1939, they were still considered Jewish.

When the German army invaded Paris in June 1940, Irène and her husband left, fleeing from the dangers of increasing anti-Semitism in the city. Irène vividly depicts the mass exodus from Paris in the first part of Suite Française, entitled “Storm in June”.

Silently, with no lights on, cars kept coming, one after the other, full to bursting with baggage and furniture, prams and birdcages […] People were jammed together like fish caught in a net” (Suite Française, p. 42, 2007)

In July 1942, Irène was arrested by the French police.  She was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died on August 17, 1942. Her husband, Michel, was also deported to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chamber.

The two little girls, Denise and Elisabeth, were sent away with their governess and went into hiding for the duration of the war. Throughout the time that they spent going from place to place, hiding in cellars away from the French police, they carried their mother’s notebook with them in their suitcase as a beloved memento of their mother.  They had no idea what the notebook contained and after the war ended, neither of them read it. It was too distressing.  In the 1990s, Denise and Elisabeth decided to donate the notebook to an organization which archived documents from the war.  But, before giving it to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, Denise decided to copy out the contents of the notebook.  When she opened it and began reading, she discovered the manuscript of the first two novels, “Storm in June” and “Dolce”, of a planned five-part series.  These two novels were published as Suite Française to tremendous critical acclaim in 2004, followed by an English translation by Sandra Smith in 2006.

Suite Française is an engaging read with a compelling first chapter.  Paris, under “the clear, golden June sky”, is suffering through an air raid as the first German bombs start to fall. The scenes portrayed in the book are highly evocative and take the reader to the heart of the story, from the scenes of desperation and sadness as thousands of Parisians flee the city in the first half of the novel to the small French town under German occupation in the second part.

Némirovsky’s writing flows and captures the reality of this time in history. Her characters are three-dimensional, struggling to adapt to the conflict which is ripping across their country and the personal conflicts within themselves. In “Dolce”, a French woman starts to fall in love with a German soldier, yet others in the rural village cannot look past the atrocities which the German army is inflicting on their people and their country.

The descriptive yet concise sentences create gripping chapters which make the reader want to read more.  She planned five novels in the series – a suite – but only completed two.  Alas, we only have a brief outline of the third novel, “Captivity”, which she jotted down in her notebook before the tragic end to her life. But Irène Némirovsky lives on in the intense, beautiful clarity of her prose and this wonderful rediscovered novel.

If you enjoy Suite Française, I recommend her other works, which include Fire in the Blood, The Wine of Solitude and The Dogs and the Wolves.  I read the English translation of Suite Française, translated by Sandra Smith, and published by Vintage Books.  At the time of writing, it is available on Amazon.com for $12.49.

A movie adaptation of Suite Française, with a stellar cast including Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, is currently in production.