Saturday, April 13, 2013

Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an e-ARC of this novel for review!

The most difficult thing about a concept novel is that it has two levels of functionality--there's the concept-level function where whatever gimmick the author uses must function and there's the regular novel-level function where the book must stand up to our expectations for a narrative. The good news for concept authors is that, if the concept is really intriguing and well-crafted, as a reader I might cut you a little slack if the story is not up to par. If the book in terms of plot and character is fantastic and the words used to write it are beautiful but the concept is illogical or bland, the entire book will nonetheless fall apart.

That's why it's such a pleasure when I encounter a book where high-concept and high-quality converge; the results are beautiful and often breath-taking (the best examples being Cloud Atlas and The Time Traveler's Wife, in my opinion). Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is an example of a book melding its two parts into one amazing work. The concept: Ursula Todd can live her life over and over until she gets it right. For example, the book starts off with her mother delivering her stillborn, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. "Darkness falls" and the chapter begins anew, this time with Ursula surviving the experience.

The book navigates variable timelines of Ursula's life over and over and it is always engaging; Atkinson never makes the idea seem boring, even when we must re-read the same version of events repeatedly. It becomes like a scavenger hunt, seeking out the differences to figure out how the events are going to change and how Ursula is going to survive this time around.

The novel is set during a very interesting time--Ursula is born in 1910 and experiences both of the wars. I am not a fan of historical fiction because it focuses too heavily on authenticity, screaming "look I'm accurate look this is different from the modern day hey hey hey I'm historical", but despite the heavy focus on the events surround World War II, Atkinson never makes the novel feel like she's trying to demonstrate her prowess as a researcher and time-period-replicator.

It's impossible, of course, to evaluate the novel without its gimmick, but I like to think that I would still have greatly enjoyed the novel without it. The Todd family is colorful and memorable, easy to sympathize with and care about. Ursula is a girl who, no matter which timeline we follow, is lovable. I wanted her life to work out and some of the timelines--ones which we are forced to accept as nonexistent/terminated--devastated me emotionally when things went terribly. That's part of the beauty of the novel: once Atkinson has shown us that everything we read didn't happen, the logical choice would be not to care (after all, if it wasn't the real version of events, why would it matter), but nonetheless I did.

As an experiment, Life After Life is a gigantic success. The idea of of alternate timelines and universes is one that has fascinated me for a very long time (see the Community episode "Remedial Chaos Theory" and the Michael Lawrence trilogy that begins with the book A Crack in the Line for other examples) and this is the most intriguing and well-done example of that concept I've ever seen. I couldn't stop myself from thinking about the idea even when I didn't read the book--"well," I said to myself, "what if she keeps the rabbit alive and that somehow stops Bridget from going to London?" I could have pondered the endless variations for hours.

As I mentioned, Atkinson's novel works as a novel, too. I cared about the characters very deeply. The ending of the book was very satisfying, a feat that is hard enough to complete in a regular novel, let alone in one where virtually any ending was possible. Life After Life is one of those books I could live in forever (just like The Time Traveler's Wife, which leads to me suspect I secretly have a thing for literary time travel). I will rave about it for months to come and know it will be in my "best of 2013" (and possibly at the top--it's in that position now and the only real competition for it is Neil Gaiman's new novel, which I've not read).

Please give the book a chance. Don't get too frustrated early on with the concept, which is kind of difficult for some people to work through in the beginning (child Ursula dies a lot, much to the annoyance of several reviewers I read online) but turns incredibly rewarding about a third of the way through the novel. Kate Atkinson, I applaud you for such an incredible book.

My rating: 5/5
Life After Life on Goodreads
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