For the past 15+ years, I’ve been the target audience for the Man Booker awards: literary fiction snob leaning to British Commonwealth authors. Though I have been branching out into other genres over the last few years, I still look to the Booker long- and shortlists for recommendations and usually pick up at least a few each year. For some reason, I haven’t looked much into other prizes until this year when I realized the Baileys (formerly Orange) prize lists would be a great resource for discovering new books by women.
Browsing through that list as well as the Costa (formerly Whitbread) awards, I remembered that I’ve looked through both lists a few times over the years but never really gave them much thought. You see, since the shortlists and winners don’t often overlap with the Man Booker, my misplaced snobbery has kept me away. No better time than the present, I quickly decided that Kate Atkinson’s books seemed the best place to start since her name appeared again and again on shortlists and in the winner’s circle.
But where should I start?
Early into a week’s visit to London, I finished reading Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, where the title character relives his life over and over, returning to his exact time and place of birth following each death and with all of his memories intact. As soon as I saw the back-cover description for Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I knew this was the book for me.
While the underlying premise is the same, the path taken is quite different. Atkinson follows the many lives of Ursula, the third of five children in the Todd family, born on a snowy February night in 1910. Each time she dies, the narrative returns to the night of her birth, seen through the eyes of a different character. Ursula has no distinct memories of her previous lives but instead experiences a periodic sense of déjà vu that compels her to take decisive actions, sometimes requiring a few attempts to make it past certain points. For the second book in a row, World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic are heavily featured, eventually moving through to the meat of the book, the Blitz of London during World War II, and only a few times beyond. I realized around the second time through the Blitz that I’d never read much if anything about it, but I’m certain nothing I’ve read was as visceral and claustrophobic and tragic and brutal.
Ursula is a flawed but compelling heroine, and I found myself rooting for her over and over, even as one of her seemingly inconsequential choices resulted left her living in Germany and married to a Nazi. I felt squeamish at first as Ursula and the Germans around her found themselves in thrall to Hitler and the spectacle and bright promises of the Nazi Party, but then I began to understand how easily an everyday kindness or a slight shift in perspective can cloud our judgment for the worse, not just the better.
Life After Life was one of my favorite reads of the year. In lesser hands, this book could have been a syrupy schmaltzfest, but her formal structures are brilliant, her characters deeply human, and her prose compulsively readable, bursting with linguistic and literary references. There’s a touch of the fantastical here, taking on themes of reincarnation and time travel, yet it’s all firmly grounded in history and reality. I’m so glad I finally found my way to Kate Atkinson and look forward to reading more of her work.