Still Life, with mulligans

51zxJeJx6TL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_What writer of fiction wouldn’t love to be rescued from his or her own dead ends? You start a story arc with a character and, somewhere along the way you decide it isn’t working; there’s no future for the character and yet you’ve got a whole novel to fill out. So you start again with an alternative future.

Normally, of course, the novelist would discard the first “life” of the character. In Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (Hachette Audio, 2013, read by Fenella Woolgar) however, the author gets to keep them all.

Okay, so this is profoundly unfair to Atkinson, even though it does often seem that her main character, Ursula Todd, has the most vivid and persistent case of déjà vu since human consciousness sparked into existence.  But it’s not really the story of the Greatest Do-over(s) Ever. First, Ursula has no control over the process (it’s not exactly a case of “If I had it to do all over again . . .”). Second, because of the limitation I just mentioned, she really doesn’t have any advantages over the rest of us, nor does she necessarily improve as a result of her experiences. She just gets reincarnated, sort of, back into the same identity. She dies a lot. You can tell she’s going to die when the darkness starts to enfold her, or when the huge black bat descends. She dies at birth (that old chestnut of the umbilical cord around the neck), as a young girl (drowning, falling from a roof, a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic), and as a mature woman (beaten to death by her husband, done in by a botched abortion, mortally concussed during the London Blitz). I think she is also shot to death by Hitler’s bodyguards in the novel’s early and late pages. She is married or not married, living in either London or Berlin during the run-up to World War II, gets raped at 16 or successfully fights off her attacker. Well, you get the idea. A lot can happen to a person who lives life after life.

It’s starting to sound as if I didn’t like this book, but that’s not the case at all. I enjoyed it very much. Atkinson develops some fascinating characters, notably (in addition to the main character) Ursula’s somewhat neurotic mother Sylvie, her extravagantly eccentric Aunt Izzie and her siblings, who range from assholes (Maurice) to heroes (Teddy, who, having been shot down over enemy territory, either survives or doesn’t). Atkinson is also extraordinarily good at evoking settings. This is especially true in her relating of events during World War II in London while the city is getting blasted to smithereens, and her portrayal of early 20th Century England in all its bourgeois glory. Of course, I can’t claim to be an expert in either of these time periods or places, but the seem so authentic in the context of Atkinson’s narrative.

This authenticity of atmosphere is helped immensely, I think, through the reading done by Fenella Woolgar (a name that seems to have jumped out of a Wodehouse novel).

I say, Jeeves . . .

I say, Jeeves . . .

I looked her up on Wikipedia and learned that she’s an actress with solid credentials, mainly on British TV. In Life After Life Woolgar’s pacing is excellent, her pronunciations are unerring and her accent is just about perfect. The narration also requires that she handle the occasional foreign language (French, German, a smattering of Italian) and she manages to deliver them with convincing expertise.

This is the first of Atkinson’s non-Jackson Brodie books that I’ve read. So far, I have to say that I prefer the JB novels, all their coincidences and other plot eccentricities notwithstanding (see reviews here and here).

On the other hand, Brodie and Ursula have a lot in common. Their personalities express a certain resignation about life – not necessarily pessimistic (at least not to the point of paralysis) – but certainly not sentimental. They seem to engage existence without aggrandizing it or themselves. I like that in my fictional characters. And in my actual living, breathing human beings, even if they only get to live once.


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