Monday, June 15, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

 Life After Life, is termed a "companion work" to Kate Atkinson's latest epic, A God in Ruins, published this yearLife After Life's main character, Ursula, dies at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. In between, Atkinson evokes the main events of the twentieth century and provides enough revisionist history to cover any and all "what-ifs." As Francine Prose so eloquently summarized in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: 

'Life After Life makes the reader acutely conscious of an author's power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make our character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team that (in a scene with the same telling details) tries unsuccessfully to save her. 

The novel that is created using this technique is nothing short of fabulous. Just as A God in Ruins focuses on the beloved character of Teddy, Life After Life acquaints us with his sister, Ursula Todd. But in A God in Ruins, there is little belief in past lives or an after-life. There are no do-overs and certainly no opportunities to re-write history. That is the distinguishing difference between the two books.

Life After Life may be read either before or after A God in Ruins. Although each book can be read singularly, the experience will be far richer if one is better acquainted with the main characters' early lives. Fox Corner, home to young Ursula, Teddy, Pamela, Freddie and Maurice, is an idyllic place--serene and beautiful. As we see in A God in Ruins, it symbolizes an England that harkens to the past and is ultimately overrun by development and "progress."

(During The Blitz),Ursula thought that she would rather die for Fox Corner than "England." For meadow and copse and the stream that ran through the bluebell wood. Well, that was England, wasn't it? The blessed plot.

But Eden has its snake, too, albeit a somewhat comic one. Maurice, the eldest son of Sylvie and Hugh, is a callous boy, shooting every creature that crosses his path. He is depicted as a child who requires little worry--he seems remarkably resilient. Later in life, we see how his egocentric nature keeps him out of harm's way and allows him to rise in government positions. Both he and eccentric Aunt Izzie provide wry humor, and along with parents Hugh and Sylvie, underscore the complexities of family dynamics.

Indeed, Atkinson's descriptions of familial love provide some of the most moving passages in the book. They underscores how important human connections with others--including animals--are in the face of unpredictable events.

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