Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If you don't get it right the first time......

I am having a total love/hate relationship with Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. The story focuses on Ursula Todd, born in England on a stormy winter's night in 1910.  She dies at birth.....or does she?  Well, she does and she doesn't.  Ursula is born again, but then she drowns as a young child...or does she?  Well, she does and she doesn't.  Ursula is saved, but then she's raped in a back stairwell by her brother's American friend.  She has an illegal abortion, develops and infection and dies....or does she?  Then there's the abusive husband who tracks her down and bludgeons her to death....or does he? Can you see the pattern here?  Along comes WWII and Ursula dies in London in the Blitz and she dies in Berlin...or does she? Atkinson keeps brining back Ursula, not from the brink of death, but never really letting her die - she is always in different circumstances.  The characters that share the story with Ursula never change, it's just Ursula who lives out what seems to be cat-like nine lives.

Ursula is always a member of the same family - Hugh, Sylvie, Pamela, Teddy, Jimmy and Maurice - her father, mother, and siblings respectively.  They never change.  Hugh is always the staid banker and Sylvie the rather shallow and dramatic mother.  Teddy and Jimmy are the sweet brothers and Pammy is the stalwart sister and confidante.  Maurice represents the dark side of the family with his meanness in childhood and self-importance in adulthood.  Then there's the aunt, Izzy, who as Sylvie's antithesis, provides a safehaven for Ursula at various times in her various lives.

Atkinson is a phenomenal writer, known for her popular Jackson Brodie mystery series.  The stories that she presents in this novel are compelling in and of themselves.  Her characters are well-developed, including Ursula whose life changes constantly.  What is driving me crazy, as I listen to this (Fenella Woolgar is an excellent reader), is the repetition of parts of the story.  Much of the story takes place during WWII.  Ursula always seems to have the same job, but her lovers change and her location changes, all with striking effects upon the story.  Right now, Ursula is part of a search and rescue team attending to a bombed out home where in another part of the book Ursula lived and "died."

Sometimes I feel like I'm reading one of those children's books where you choose your own ending. Other times I feel like these are scenes from the cutting room floor that are retrieved to retell the story until the director gets it right.  What I always feel is that this is a unique reading experience because while there are aspects of the story that drive me crazy, I love the way Atkinson ties everything together with a twist.  You have to keep reading (or in my case, listening) to see what happens.  What will be the ultimate fate for Ursula?  How will her presence in a particular place at a particular time affect the outcome?  How long can this go on and still remain a compelling story?  Well, I'll be happy to let you know as soon as I do.  In the meantime go out and get the book for yourself and enjoy the ride with me.