Just as I have a problem with books which are “all about the ending” (see blog of 27 July 2012) I also can’t really appreciate novels which are “all about a hook”. Because, once you get over the hook, they often lack any substance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Life after Life is well-written. I like Kate Atkinson’s style. But, I think because of the reincarnation hook focus (although I can’t know that for sure) the novel itself is a little bland and depressing….
- None of the characters are particularly interesting or well-rounded. Well, maybe with the exception of the wild sister, Izzy, but even she is something of a stereotype. The principal character, Ursulla’s whole personality seems to be focussed on her experience of reincarnation. This only worsens in the second half of the novel, where that is all she seems to think about.
- The rest of the narrative is pretty samey. Set between 1910 and the 1960s in London (and a little in Germany), so many of the key themes – war, rationing, the Blitz, Hilter, the swinging sixties etc – have been covered extensively in so many other novels, and this one doesn’t really carve out any new space.
- Not only is that samey, but the repeated telling of the same event (e.g. Ursuall’s birth) albeit from different angles, can’t help but become somewhat repetitive after 500 or so pages.
- The reincarnation narrative is depressing. It seems that whatever Ursula does to try and change an outcome, it either happens anyway, or something equally horrific comes to pass. I appreciate that this is a reference to fat and / or the butterfly effect, but it after a while it wears you down. It appears that though we may frequently wish for them, second chances offer no better opportunities than the first.
- The non-reincarnation narrative is equally depressing. It seems to focus on either miserable marriages (including Ursula’s own) or successful relationships which are destroyed by fate, frequently death. The novel is full of death – not only Ursula’s but that of those around her. In some ways, this may be the reality of that era, but it brings little light relief, especially when it is replayed over and over again.
“Bridget seemed to spend a lot of time trying to cheer Clarence up. Ursula supposed she was practising for marriage.”
Complaints with no category:
- For a novel which is all about the “hook” you expect a lot from said hook. However, when the “hook” does play a central role, it is often just really confusing. This is most true at the end, where (though I won’t spoil it) the reader is never entirely sure whether the protagonist’s main aim has been achieved.
- As a historian, the ahistorical / alternative history element of the book frustrates me. I find nothing more depressing than suddenly, in the middle of a novel, coming across two pages of counter-history, without any real thought or explanation.
But I do give it this, it contains one of my favourite ever quotes about England: “German romanticism, it seemed to Ursula, was writ large and mystical, the English lakes seemed tame by comparison. And the English soul, if it resided anywhere, was surely in some unheroic back garden – a patch of lawn, a bed of roses, a row of runner beans.”