Friday, October 25, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Life After Life

I have two bits of business today: the Coffeehouse Coffeehouse Review and What's Making Me Happy This Week. Let's take the latter first: The biggest thing that's making me happy this week is the much-anticipated arrival, in a mere 12 hours, of my very dear friend Di. I met Di via Facebook many moons ago, through a discussion group. We watched each other's posts in mutual admiration for a while before finally friending each other. When we met in England (in real life!) in 2010, we proved that, in spite of what our mothers all warn us, People From The Internet are not all axe-murderers. Who knew? And then she came to visit us in 2011 and we proved it again. Third time's a charm.

On to the book review: It will be a bit long, because the book is complex and layered and a short review won't do it justice. But here's the upshot: 5/5 stars, highly recommended.

Two novels came out in the spring of 2013 titled "Life After Life," oddly enough. I am reviewing Kate Atkinson's, the one about a woman in war-torn England who literally lives life after life. Lives, dies, does it over again, until she gets it right. If this sounds familiar, then you are thinking what I thought: it's like a literary, historical version of Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is actually a great movie, so this is not an insulting comparison, but Atkinson's novel takes the notion to an even deeper level. Books can do that, since you're spending so much more time with a character than you do in a film. Atkinson is also a hell of a writer, so she's got that going on, too.


I loved this book. I had no idea, going in, what the concept was, so I was very confused initially: this is one where it's maybe not a bad idea to read the blurb first. Once the protagonist, Ursula Todd, had died and been reborn a few times, I began to catch on.

Ursula dies in childbirth, she dies in infancy, she dies in toddlerhood, she dies in early childhood. Because you are in her viewpoint (or locked on it) and never see the grieving aftermath, these deaths are not as upsetting as you might think. Like Ursula, you are startled, and then you're starting over. Throughout these deaths and through the lives lived over, we get to know her family. Readers will be reminded of Downton Abbey, no doubt: Ursula is born (repeatedly) into a fairly aristocratic family near the dawn of the twentieth century. The Todds are not quite as wealthy as the Crawleys, but the period details and circumstances are similar. The dysfunctions of this family are of the ordinary kind, and I really fell in love with them as each successive life painted in more and more details. World War I forms the backdrop of this part of the story.

Once we get to know the family and we see Ursula get the hang of avoiding death, we take a leap forward in time. Ursula is now a young woman in London. World War II is now the backdrop of the story. It is probably a good thing I didn't know about this going in, or I'd never have read the book. As many of you know, I am so over World War II as a setting, and the Blitz scenes are truly horrific in this book. I felt nearly as traumatized reading them as I did reading of the Allied bombings in The Book Thief. And yet, somehow I also found these scenes oddly uplifting. Perhaps because Ursula does get chances to do it over again, so the stakes are greatly lowered—even if the tension is not. But also because Ursula and her friends are part of an urban rescue squad, and I was glad to learn of the work such people did during the war; it isn't just pain, fear, and misery, but real heroism. I was most deeply invested in the story during this section.

We know from the prologue that Ursula has to end up confronting The Führer himself, and the third part of the book takes us to Germany. Here, Ursula learns that if she chooses to take her own life, something will be broken forever; this bit will make good fodder for book discussion groups. Also worth discussing is what Atkinson is saying about fate. Is Ursula being directed to this end? She is by the author, of course. But within the scope of the book, one gets the sense that Ursula is living her lives over again not necessarily for the betterment of herself, but so she can get to the scene the book starts with. Is this the point of her life? I wonder (and I don't think the book clarifies this) if she gets to escape the cycle of reincarnation once she completes her task. Being born again and again would get rather tiresome, really, as Hinduism points out.

Another thing to discuss—really, this is the perfect book club selection—is how one random event in childhood can profoundly affect a person's character. A chance encounter on the stairs when she is 16 leaves Ursula broken, essentially ruining that life. (I was relieved when that life ended, to be honest. This was the most difficult section of the book for me.) I felt like Atkinson was saying, you may be born with a certain character, but this character is not your destiny. Events beyond your control will shape that character, which will in turn shape your destiny.

I read this book because it was one of Slate magazine's Audio Book Club selections. This is why I didn't read the blurb first: I let Slate make the reading decision for me. If you decide to read it, I'd highly recommend listening to the panel discussion of this book after you finish; it's like being in a book discussion group with the smartest people you know. I also highly recommend the audiobook edition narrated by the improbably-named Fenella Woolgar. This is probably the best book narration I have ever heard; I will be checking out more of Woolgar's work.

Happy reading!

14 comments:

  1. Intrigued by the idea of stakes being lowered but the tension remaining high.

    I am so happy you're seeing Di in less than a day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, it is quite a feat. You'd think an auto-resurrecting character would kill the tension (so to speak) but it doesn't at all. Maybe because "death" is not the only stake there is.

      I am happy too! :)

      Delete
  2. First things first: Fenella Woolgar is an awesome name!

    The book sounds fascinating. I'm unclear: does she maintain awareness from one incarnation to the the next?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Atkinson remains slightly fuzzy on how much awareness Ursula carries from one life to the next, but it is clear that the deaths themselves seem to leave a lasting impression, in that she is able to avoid that specific pitfall next time. But it comes across as something more like intuition than an exact memory. It is interesting watching her growing awareness of the resurrection process; it becomes part of her character development.

      Delete
    2. That is pretty cool - an interesting exploration of the reincarnation concept.

      Delete
  3. First, have a fantastic time with your friend!

    I have to laugh, because you seem to unknowingly keep reading books with WWII in them. This books sounds similar to one I read a number of years ago, but on a different level. The character only has two lives, but the family isn't aware of her first one where she actually killed Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and WWII. The story unravels with this family learning there was an alternate history and that their mother had changed that. I wish I could remember the title, but it was quite a while ago when I read it. I think I might like this one you read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I have to laugh, because you seem to unknowingly keep reading books with WWII in them." I know, right!? I thought of you a lot while reading this, MM, because you do like historical fiction so much and because Ursula's character arc seems like something you'd enjoy. It's got a number of aspects that seem well-suited to you, actually. But it's not perfect; I'd be curious to see if the pitfalls I spotted were the same ones that catch you. If you read it, we need to have a book-club-of-two to discuss afterward. :)

      Delete
  4. I remember reading about this (and the title competition). Definitely sounds interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an interesting concept and a brilliant execution. My husband is reading it now and said it reminds him of the Time Traveler's Wife in a few ways. (One of his all-time favorite novels.)

      Delete
    2. Ooh. I don't remember if I still have Time Travelers Wife. I had to do a painful purge a few months ago. But I think I still have it. At least I've seen and very much enjoyed the movie!

      Delete
  5. This is an intriguing premise. I wonder why the author decided to make the mc be born to the same family every time (I would imagine something more random) but it was probably simpler to keep the same characters, plus the idea that she was fulfilling some kind of fate.

    Good review. I may give it a try next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should! And then MM should and then we can all talk about it over empanadas. :D As much as this book reminded me of sistah MM, the one I'm reading right now is reminding me of you, Lorena: "The Sound of Things Falling" by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Even if I didn't know the South American connection, I think I'd have associated it with you. The atmosphere, the diction, the literary quality—it reminds me of your writing, and might be something you'd enjoy. You could read it in its original Spanish, too, which I envy.

      Delete
    2. Ahhh, those empanadas! Can't wait for you guys to try them.

      I've never heard of that novel (or even the writer). Will definitely look into it! :)

      Delete
  6. How neat that you and your FB pal have met several times and get along so well. This month, I met two bloggers pals face-to-face, and we hit it off, too. It's nice to know "cyber" friends can be real friends in the real world, too, isn't it?

    That book sounds terrific. I'll definitely look into it. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete