'You can step in the same river but the water will always be new.'
On turning the final page of Kate Atkinson's latest novel Life After Life I just heaved a great big sigh of relief.
Relief that I had got there and that I had persevered through when I will admit there were moments when I wanted to give up. Could I really bear to go back to the beginning and read Ursula's life over again...and again...and..
By page 150 I had written ..
'Is this the cleverest or the most annoying and frustrating book I have ever read.'
But relief too that I had kept going because ultimately I think I have enjoyed it and the book has given me much to think about.
Mostly I am confused and mostly I think I am supposed to be.
I am not sure the definitive penny has dropped yet, and with many questions unanswered I am surprised that I feel any sense of satisfaction at all, but oddly I do. Compelled to read on for an answer, in the end I'm not sure there is one, and maybe that's the whole point. There is no single 'right' way to read or interpret Life After Life, of that I feel sure, and I suspect everyone will read a subtly different book which probably makes it very clever indeed.
The premise is indeed clever, so much so that I could only wonder why no one had thought of it in quite this format before (maybe they have and I have missed it) but what if you could live your life again and do things differently, and when it didn't go right that time either, just start again. Each new life seems to offer Ursula Todd the chance to alter events and redeem the traumas of a previous one; the assault can be neatly side-stepped, the violent marriage avoided, someone need not die, and in many ways there is a sense of deep satisfaction to this for a reader. It avoids all the 'wonder what would have happened if...' because Kate Atkinson deals with that to the point where you could be left with nothing to wonder about at all. Except that is not the case, I have thought of little else but Life After Life since I finished it, so I am grateful to Kate Atkinson for lightening the load a little.
Chance, fate, coincidence and free will are all cornered and addressed by Ursula's reincarnations, up-ending one of the many fundamentals of human experience... that you can't change what has happened therefore you just have to make the best and learn to live with it. Shifting too the reasoning behind that fundamental... that more often than not you did the best you could at the time, given what you knew, what you were capable of and which circumstances would allow. There is comfort in that if you can achieve the mindset but Ursula doesn't need to, she will be given many chances.
Underlying the premise of rebirth is Ursula's experience of deja vu, both alluded to in the briefest of moments...
'Catch me next time round,'...
'It was a long time ago and it was yesterday.'
I doubt we have any greater understanding of deja vu now than they did in the early 1900s when Life After Life is set; maybe even less given the need for evidence-based everything these days. But I also spent some time pondering the possible reasons for Kate Atkinson's choice of 1910 as Ursula's birth year. Apart from the obvious plot device of ensuring she was the right age for the wars I could only wonder whether Virginia Woolf's proclamation had some significance here too..
'And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed.
I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.'
(Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1923)
Change was the key currency here, and plenty of it. The book places the God-like power of the author centre stage as Kate Atkinson pulls the strings of Ursula's life this way and that. The impossibilities of life become the possibilities of fiction. An early initial outcome of that for me was a high level of reader anxiety, and I'll own up to some early doubts and dissatisfaction at having the story 'taken away' from me yet again, flicking ahead nervously to see if a chapter was going to end with the words 'Darkness fell', a sure sign that Ursula and I would be rewinding and taking a different path through the same landscape.
When I was about halfway through Life After Life, and in something of a fictional whirlpool of chaos and confusion with it, we happened to have one of those nights. It is a known fact that when the dogs are barking on and off through the night here because... well who can know why... maybe a fox or a badger is snuffling around the kennel, that by 4am it is incumbent upon someone to go out and let them out for a run or shout at them ask them nicely to be quiet, and settle them back down again.
So I stayed put (you really didn't think it would be me did you?) and Bookhound went out along the lane in his dressing gown and wellies with three hyper-sprung dogs, hoping against hope that it wasn't the night that the Plymouth Car Club were having their Moonlight Rally (it happens too). By this time I am wide awake, Bookhound came back in reporting that the Tamar Valley was an echoing vale of noisy animals, he made a cup of tea and I settled down to read some more of Life After Life.
It is a book that was puzzling me on many fronts, and I couldn't have said hand on heart at that stage that I was loving it, though there is much in it that I was admiring for its cleverness and originality. Now it is about 4.45 am, the dawn chorus is in progress and I am on the iPad and skimming (for fear of spoilers) through some of the superlative reviews that the book has garnered. Truly not an ill word amongst them, and thence I went to the Radio Four Open Book Interview between Kate Atkinson and Mariella Frostrup for some more insight.
It was interesting to hear Kate Atkinson talking about the book and how she really had no plan, it just evolved... no post-it notes plastering the walls, everything kept in her head, which must have been like spinning plates on poles as far as I can tell, and a medal for anyone who has read this on a Kindle because I have spent my life flicking back and forth to check the dates. I read a bit more and it was obvious that when my next circadian rhythm came around and I dropped off to sleep, I was either going to dream about the book, Kate Atkinson, Mariella Frostrup, or all three.
In fact it was Kate Atkinson.
Kate Atkinson came round and offered to sign my copy for me which I thought was really nice of her considering the house is so hard to find. There was a sharp intake of breath, a tsk and a slight hesitation when she saw the book and how much I had written on the page where she should sign her name. Then she wrote (in red ink I ask you, and over my pencil scribbles) thanking me for reading the book so carefully and for writing such nice things about it.
Given that I hadn't even finished it, search me how Kate Atkinson knew what I might say about the book before I had even thought it... surely not deja vu or something, and I am not sure I have said nice things, but I am delighted to have read Life After Life. It is a book that will stay with me for a very long time, and though I am famed for my loyalty to our 'ilary' and Bring Up the Bodies, if this one wins the Women's Prize for Fiction I wouldn't be suprised, and nor would I be as disappointed as I might have been.
And I suspect Hilary Mantel would be gracious about it too. In a predictably brilliant 1996 London Review of Books piece on Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum (a book I loved and a piece I ended up buying online because having read the first quarter I then had to read the other three quarters, e mail me for details) Hilary Mantel is unstinting with her praise...
'Just when you think you have understood how her book works she will undeceive you....On a second anatomist's reading, the book's articulation shows clearly, its bones and joints almost perfectly aligned; Atkinson cares for structure and here is a delicate but robust skeleton on which hangs the muscle of narrative force and the tissue of loss and sadness...'
Right, over to you...I know quite a few of you have read Life After Life so please do share your thoughts, and even if you haven't read it, are you tempted...