Thursday 11 April 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2013); Signed First Edition

As I'm sure I've stated before, I don't buy many new (as in, newly written and published) novels; my tastes tend to run to older, usually mustier tomes (although those tomes, though frequently foxed and smelling of fags, are often as not "new" to me). But occasionally either a new novel will catch my eye – as was the case recently with Roger Hobbs's debut, Ghostman, which I bought and read shortly after publication (verdict: not bad at all) – or an author whose work I admire will publish a new novel and I might find myself inclined to pick it up. Which brings me to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.

I love Atkinson's four Jackson Brodie novels – I've blogged about them a few times – but I've never read any of her non-Brodie books, so I was in two minds whether or not to try Life After Life, which was published by Doubleday in March of this year under a dust jacket designed by Claire Ward. In the end, the prospect of securing a signed first edition at cover price swayed me, along with the novel's premise: a woman, Ursula, dies over and over again at various junctures of her life, from childhood to adulthood, throughout the twentieth century until she gets it "right". I'm a sucker for a World War II-related alternate history tale (which Life After Life in part is) – Len Deighton's SS-GB, Sarban's The Sound of His Horn, C. J. Sansom's Dominion – so for me the novel's science fiction trappings – to use the term loosely – were an additional lure, even though I knew going in that the hows and whys of Ursula's plight probably wouldn't be addressed.

Which of course they aren't. But in the event, it turns out Atkinson has inadvertently tapped into a rather different form of storytelling than the alternate history thriller (and it'll be no surprise to anyone familiar with Atkinson's work that Life After Life isn't a thriller, either, even though it opens with an assassination attempt on Hitler). Structurally, the form the novel most brought to mind for me was that of the video game, or perhaps more accurately those old "choose your own adventure" Fighting Fantasy books. Video games and Fighting Fantasy novels both hinge on a learning process: you get something wrong the first time, get killed, and have to start again either at the beginning or earlier in that level, and that's pretty much how Life After Life works too, both for Ursula and in a more passive sense for the reader. In fact, you could probably chop the novel up and rearrange it in the same manner as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and it would still function reasonably well. ("If you want to retrieve the dolly Queen Solange from the snowy rooftop, turn to page 87; if you want to leave her where she is, turn to page 36.")

I say Atkinson has "inadvertently" alighted on this approach because I kind of doubt she's ever played a video game, or indeed read The Citadel of Chaos. In that sense, while the novel's structure might have more resonance and perhaps even be more familiar to younger generations than linear storytelling, it's not comparable to what, for instance, Christopher Brookmyre was getting at in a recent interview in SFX to promote his novel Bedlam (thank you to Book Glutton for bringing it to my attention) when he said that video games are changing storytelling, pointing to the film Source Code as possessing "the structure of playing a videogame, you have someone who has to keep reloading the game until he's got it right". It's more feasible that it's a side effect of a parallel development in home computing: word processing, which has made it far easier, far more natural-feeling, for writers to write in a disjointed, out of sequence fashion – something that many have always done anyway – noting random lines of dialogue, penning whole scenes before embarking on a book – but which writing on a word processor particularly lends itself to.

Mind you, I've no idea what Kate Atkinson uses to write with or on – computer, typewriter, pen and paper, an Etch A Sketch. From the little I've read about her, the scattershot, seemingly meandering quality of her novels is merely a symptom of how her mind works; witness the parenthetical asides which litter her books (Atkinson has said that she herself thinks in brackets). So the structure of Life After Life could simply be a case of Atkinson starting the novel over and over again, allowing Ursula to drift almost of her own accord into a succession of (slightly deadly) cul-de-sacs (where darkness, the "black bat", awaits her) and then rewinding and trying a different plot branch.

In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter how Atkinson arrived at the approach (thus making my musings in this post even more pointless than usual); the novel is what it is: enchanting, frustrating, breathless, confounding, but above all beautifully written – and in that sense at least the equal of the Jackson Brodie books. By way of illustration, I'll leave you with a passage from early in the novel, describing how the baby Ursula is regularly left alone in her pram in the garden by Bridget, the maid, at the behest of Ursula's mother, Sylvie, who has "inherited a fixation with fresh air from her own mother, Lottie":

Bare branches, buds, leaves – the world as she knew it came and went before Ursula's eyes. She observed the turn of the seasons for the first time. She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mould and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them – sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked. (There was sometimes a tardiness to rescuing her from the elements.)

Once there had even been the stars and a rising moon – astonishing and terrifying in equal measure – when she had been forgotten one autumn evening. Bridget was castigated.


  1. I loved it but it took me a while to discover how to read it if you know what I mean. It takes a moment or ten to realize it is that very method that makes it interesting rather than frustrating. People that try to read it as an ordinary narrative will be at odds with it. My book group split on it. Four loved it, four did not.

  2. It does seem to be quite polarising – frustration with the constant start/stop is a common complaint, although that's the aspect I most liked about it. I got wrapped up in the momentum of Ursula's deaths, anticipated them and almost looked forward to them. Whereas the middle part where she manages to stay alive for a while kind of dragged!

  3. The idea of 'replaying' part of your life is an old one, of course--most famously employed in the film "Groundhog Day", but I remember a story in Asimov's Magazine from some decades back (not the title or author, sadly), where a man develops what he calls 'The Backspace Key'--he can keep turning back time for a day or so, when something doesn't go the way he wants, and events will replay somewhat differently each time, though the end result will often be similar--only he remembers the deleted events. He's not just backspacing his life--it effects everything. He uses it to undo a nuclear holocaust--repeatedly. A clever story, not a very deep one, as I recall.

    The idea is sort of a literary Rorshach Test--what do you think would happen if you could do it all over? Would you make the same mistakes, different ones, or actually get it right? Can we learn from our mistakes, or do our mistakes actually define us? It may not be either/or, of course.

    It's a tempting fantasy, and sometimes an instructive one, but you know what Omar Khayyam would say.

  4. Mmm, nope! Would he say, "Go read the book, Chris"?


  5. "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

    But then I'm sure he'd have said something about reading the book. And perhaps what kind of refreshments to enjoy along with it. :)

  6. Yes, the middle part was the least interesting to me and most interesting to the four who disliked it. I've read a hundred good books about the war in London, but very few about the possibility evoked here.

  7. Atkinson said in a radio interview that she kept track of everything on a Moleskine storyboard and that she more or less knew the entire story right away (whereas when she is writing a Jackson Brodie novel she has to go back and forth all the time and insert clues and make sure everything works). So she must be a genius.

    Most of the time when you read a good book or watch a good movie, you actively want the characters to make the right decisions or avoid certain dangers. The way Atkinson structures the book lets us experience these moments over and over. We can't choose the adventures but we do get to watch them unfold and to me, this simple trick was immensely rewarding. (But I do know if I would want to more novels work this way. It could get old fast.) And I never really knew if Ursula could make it all work. (And by the end, except for the life of her brother, I am still not sure how much good her do-overs did.)

    That said,I loved the book but am still struggling with my final assessment of it. You've pretty much hit the nail on the head when you say it is "enchanting, frustrating, breathless, confounding, but above all beautifully written."