I’m taking a break today from my normal warbles of librarianship and dipping my toe into the, granted pretty saturated, book review blogosphere. I do write some reviews in earnest already as book recommendations for my school, but this is my first foray into adult, booky, writey whatever.
I have chosen to write about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as we recently read it for the Manchester WI book group. The organiser of the group, Georgina, has already written a fab post about it but I thought I would share my opinions on it here as I was rather muted at the group, and that is not normally me!
I went to visit family in Romford in the summer and I picked the book up in WH Smith as part of a deal with Ali Smith’s How to be Both which I may well chat about on here at a later date. I very rarely buy new books anymore as I already have about four million at home I need to read, along with the books in the library I become tempted by as well. Going along to the book group is a fabulous excuse for me to buy new books. As if I even needed one!
I didn’t start reading it straight away because the length put me off. That sound ridiculous, but it’s true. I can be all about the quick gains, the satisfaction I feel when I polish a book off in about four hours. I didn’t think I’d get it from this novel.I actually did though and I read it in a few days, which must be a first for me for a book longer than 500 pages. I found that I couldn’t put it down but not in the usual sense of it being totally gripping but more because I knew I was reading to a deadline and I found the prose really easy to read and not at all challenging.
The plot itself has an unusual structure with time jumping back and forward and switching between different timelines. The main character, Ursula, is born first with the chord wrapped around her neck and doesn’t survive. Then a small thing changes and she survives. Then she dies again, so something else changes and she survives again, and so on. Many of the ladies at the book group found this a rather irritating feature of the story as they felt it made the plot confusing and hard to follow the story. For me, I didn’t have many instances where I found myself lost totally but it was occasionally necessary to flip back and check dates and names again which I could see could cause annoyance!
I don’t think I am giving away too much of the plot here (as it is mentioned on literally the second page) but Ursula does have some contact with Hitler during the novel, and I’ve seen many reviews who question the legitimacy of how she comes about meeting him and how it seems a little, how shall we say, unlikely. I can see that point but, taking into consideration the endless times Ursula is reborn, you could hardly call the story realistic in the most basic sense. I do think that because Atkinson refers to real events and uses a pretty accurate chronology that this could be why meeting up with Hitler or whatever would seem unbelievable. I think you’ve really got to suspend your disbelief for his one.
The absolute worst thing about this novel, for me, was the lack of character development. The characters are shifting around so much, with Ursula going and coming back, people being dead and not dead, that you start to lose all emotional attachments to anyone at all. I like to become so convinced by a character in a novel that I can become a part of them, to know how they would react to a situation, what they look like, start imaging what it’s like to be them. I didn’t feel anything at all like that for these characters, it was like just going though the motions.
To end on a positive, they are some really good parts to this book. Despite forming no emotional ties I found that the sections involving Ursula and her experiences of the war and of her involvement in an abusive relationship to be very moving regardless. I’d never thought properly about what it must’ve been like for people living through the Blitz and the gory, nasty things people saw and just had to live with. Still for me, sadly, the story was interesting but the people in merely interchangeable.