I confess before beginning this review that I await any new novel by Kate Atkinson with the sort of eager excitement usually reserved for small children on Christmas eve. I had already encountered (and loved) her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum 10 years ago when I helped to host a reading of her collection of short stories Not the End of the World. That was when the writing really clicked for me. Hearing the stories from that collection read aloud I knew that this was writing that danced off the page – full of life. The combination of humour (and I mean really funny, not just faintly amusing) humanity and genuine heart-felt emotion in her writing struck a chord. This collection came back to me when I wrote my dissertation at university, after I had discovered Carter, Atwood and Byatt. I found that her stories fitted seamlessly into that heritage of women’s writing that has formed the basis of the literature I love most.
All of which is to say that I was hugely excited when the proof of her latest book landed, as an unexpected early Christmas present, on my desk. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Crime novels Atkinson has more recently turned her hand to and although sitting comfortably as genre Fiction they are anything but formulaic. Nevertheless, I have missed some of the magic and playfulness of form and narrative which marked her earlier work. Atkinson is a writer who has that rare ability to hold a compelling story whilst letting the pathways of telling it meander in all manner of strange and enticing directions. She is a chameleon writer, comfortably moving between genres and narrative styles with ease.
In this Life after Life is something of a return to origins. There are many familiar elements here: a plot centred on a family structure and a strong and unique lead female character. Beginning in 1910 and arching over the monumental events of two world wars and a changing social landscape seen through the lives of one family, in many ways Atkinson treads some very familiar territory. However this is not your average story of a family at war. The novel instead takes the reader on a journey of possibility, the endless possibility of a life lived over and over again. The opportunities presented to someone if they could live their life over and over again, make other choices, effect varying outcomes. Could you change the world? Stop a war? Save a life? Sacrifice your own? Could you change who you love and would you want to?
This is a novel about the different ways a life can play out but it isn’t a sliding doors scenario of parallel existences. More accurately it is a life and narrative built like a fugue in layers of ever more complex and rich notes of experience. Kate Atkinson is an old hand at transformation and metamorphosis but the mode of telling this stories lends itself to this more than most. Each new version of the story can take a different tone, each character can be both one thing and another – a mother, a mistress, a killer. Any and all of these are possibilities all with the same cast of characters but a different throw of the dice. As each new sensation, new possibility, is lived through there is a building anticipation of events, the premonition of impending disaster or the hope of success. If many novels can be seen as taking the reader on a journey in which they are a passive watcher of the lives of others this book doesn’t offer the security of that way of reading. I have never before read a novel in which I felt so passionately and actively involved in the outcome of its protagonists. It is one of Atkinson’s most accomplished talents as a writer to always be able to conjure a cast of characters who are wholly real and believable in all their human frailty and complexity. Her writing displays those powers at their best, most noticeably because as each new life emerges as a reader you feel so strongly invested in the desire for this to be the time it ‘turns out right’.
Of course, the real discovery is that there is no right at all. Nothing new in that, you might say. But in creating a novel where you so powerfully hope for life to be different, better, more fulfilling, less painful, Atkinson uncovers a real truth – that despite our best knowledge of the fallibility of life and human nature we remain hopeful that we can find the right path through it all.
There are resonances in this story of Sarah Water’s wartime novel The Night Watch in the way the reader is able to unwrap the story in a new way through innovation of telling. In doing so, we see each new emerging event with the extra poignancy of acquired knowledge. Like Waters, Atkinson takes you back to origins and reminds us that so much of our lives are formed by where we come from. Seen from the beginning, every story looks full of promise, at least until the telling of it muddies the waters.
I had never expected to be disappointed by this novel but I couldn’t have anticipated how much it would stay with me. Like all good books, like all great characters, it left me feeling bereft, having anchored so much of my self in its pages for the duration of reading it. If the end of one year is also the beginning of the next, then this is a wonderful premonition of the year ahead. Reading this was in many ways like coming home. It made me remember, suddenly and acutely, the maps and plans of my life I had as a child and the myriad ways it has been different since. Not least because I read it with all the compulsive speed that I used to as a child, staying up late into the night when I found something to read that was entirely new. It’s a long time since I’ve had that feeling and it was a delight to have the renewed discovery of genuinely innovative storytelling. Something new, rich and exciting on the horizon. More please Kate, more please.