I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing for years now; I picked up a copy of Emotionally Weird in the Waterstones three-for-two offer in 2001, or maybe 2002 (after I’d moved to Oxford, before I married T, that’s all I can remember) and was sold on it a couple of pages in when I realised that (a) one of the characters was called Janice Rand and (b) this was definitely not coincidence. I love the way Atkinson tells stories, teasing the readers with pieces of a picture that we can never quite make out until the very end, mixing in elements from both popular and high culture which resonate and enhance the emotional experience. While I haven’t read the last two of her Jackson Brodie books after finding One Good Turn almost unbearably bleak, I thought Life After Life sounded fascinating and I’m not sure how I managed to have it on my Kindle for two years (almost exactly, I’ve checked the purchase date in my email) before I actually read it.
Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 in a Forsterian idyll in the Home Counties; a child during World War 1; in her early 30s during World War 2. Or rather, it’s the stories, of Ursula Todd, as each time she dies (childhood accidents, illnesses, the Blitz) she is immediately reborn, to live her life again, subtly changed. Premonitions and a kind of déja vu help her (sometimes) to avoid the mis-steps that led to her previous death; sometimes the déja vu crystallises into memory and causes her to try to take actions to change a history that, generally, seems to be remarkably sticky (Ursula’s family’s lives appear to be largely unaffected by the changes in her lives, making the same marriages at the same times, having the same children, while the German bombs fall in the same places on the same nights whether Ursula is there or not). Sometimes the book reminded me of playing a computer game, going through the same steps over and over again, trying to find the right move to avoid dying. Sometimes it reminded me of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Life Serial’ (I’m not sure the similarity in titles is a coincidence, either: Atkinson’s short story collection Not The End Of The World is packed with references to Buffy). One bit put me vividly in mind of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, although re-reading that now I think ‘Daddy’ was also part of what came to mind. It’s not a comfortable or easy book to read; I found myself infected with Ursula’s sense of foreboding, full of dread and anxiety about what might be about to happen, and then later I was overwhelmed with sadness and compassion to a world where senseless, horrible things can happen to good people. The scenes set in the Blitz are compelling, calm, vivid and utterly horrific. (It’s funny, I fear the apocalypse so much, and I forget that actually, my grandparents lived through it.) It left me in tears, and I think it’s a book that will stay with me.
After finishing Life After Life , I was prompted to go back to Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which I’d tried but failed to get into earlier in the summer.
Like Life After Life, My Real Children explores the way different choices can change a life, though in this case there’s only one choice: in 1949, Patricia’s fiancé, met at Oxford, demands that she marry him now or never. After a few initial chapters dealing with Patricia’s childhood and time at university (unremarkable, if oddly religious) the novel proceeds to show us Patricia’s two lives, alternating chapter by chapter between “Tricia” (who got married) and “Pat” (who didn’t). Unlike Ursula, whose different existences leave very few ripples on the fabric of reality, in one of Patricia’s lives the post-war world becomes a left-wing utopia, while in the other the Cold War is punctuated with limited nuclear exchanges, there is widespread terrorism and society becomes increasingly repressive and right-wing. Neither world is the one we live in, and there’s some suggestion that if Patricia could find a middle way in her own dilemma the two worlds would merge into ours, but Walton never really gives any reason why the choice made by one woman, who isn’t involved in politics or anything more than minor local activism, could have such an extreme effect in such a short time. I didn’t dislike the book so much this time round, but it felt stodgy somehow; where Atkinson deftly picks out the significant incidents in a long life, passing over gaps of years with a sentence or two, Walton gives us a solid year-by-year chronicle of Patricia’s two lives. There were also a few odd mentions which threw me out of the text rather (the very religious nature of Patricia’s upbringing, which reminded me of a less miserable Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit but which is never remarked on; people mentioning it being easier for women to get into Oxford during World War 2 because of the men being in the Forces; a high-church Anglican joining the Oxford Christian Union; and a Cambridge without any public parks for children to play in are the ones that come to mind). It’s not a bad book, but Atkinson is clearly the better writer by miles, and I don’t think My Real Children will stay with me like Life After Life will.