Friday, 13 June 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter (

What we thought: Wow. I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s crime novels but have never read any of her early literary work, so thought this would be a real treat. And I wasn’t wrong. I’m always impressed by genre writers who push boundaries and are brave enough to try new things. Atkinson has certainly written a challenging book that keeps your attention every step of the way as the story unfolds, rewinds, unfolds, rewinds on a constant loop.

I like how the originality of structure shows how the author holds all of the power, in some ways this is as much a lesson about writing and literary skill as On Writing by Stephen King.

The central character, Ursula Todd, is reborn many times over. The book opens with the assassination of Hitler, when Ursula decides to shoot the tyrant in 1930 after befriending his girlfriend, Eva Braun. As his SS men pull out their guns, darkness fades, and we return to Ursula’s birth in 1910. This time the baby is a still-birth, the doctor is unable to revive her, darkness falls. And the story begins again. Each birth followed by a slightly different life-path, tweaked and manipulated along the way by Eva, although she seems confused and unaware of why she makes these decisions that alter the track of her life.

I’ll be honest that this wasn’t an easy read, keeping a constant check on dates was mandatory to understand where you stood in the story. Re-reading two or more versions of a characters life story took a depth of understanding in the author’s intentions. But there was something both compelling and satisfying about the novel, not to mention the sheer grace and beauty of the writing itself, which in its succinct style gave you such rich detail.

I did question the only tangible reference to the repetition of Ursula’s life, the blackouts and sense of deja-vu the author introduced in later versions. I wondered why the girl had no real memory of events like the Blitz or the Hitler assassination and this was the only time I felt pulled from the story and not totally convinced by the plot.

But fans of literary fiction will adore the writing and I would have no hesitation in recommending the novel.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Sarah Waters, Donna Tart.

Avoid if you don’t like: Reincarnation and manipulation of the reader.

Ideal accompaniments: Dry white Chablis with crackers and Brie.

Genre: Literary Fiction.

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