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‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson ****

Life After Life is one of the most recent novels from one of Britain’s finest contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson. Here, Atkinson has used ‘the most turbulent events of the 20th century’ as her backdrop, and has proffered the question: ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ Interesting foundations abound, and the story which she has crafted certainly builds upon this creativity.

9780552779685The beginning of the book takes November 1930 as its setting, but that is by no means the beginning of the story. The structure is such that it flits between one time period and the next, bobbing into the past and hurtling into the future from one chapter to another. In the first vignette, Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, finds herself in a café with Adolf Hitler: ‘He loved his cakes’, our omniscient narrator muses. ‘No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view’. Armed with an old pistol, Ursula shoots him. Here the vignette ends.

The second sketch takes us back to rather a domestic scene in February 1910, where a baby girl, our very own Ursula Todd, is born blue, ‘strangled’ by her umbilical cord, ‘the poor wee thing’. In the third vignette which follows, the very same baby is ‘bonny’ and ‘bouncing’, and full of life. Ursula is the third daughter of a young married couple, Hugh and Sylvie Todd, who already have two children. When meeting his baby sister for the first time, the eldest son, Maurice, ‘gloomily’ utters ‘Another girl’, showing the start of his childish distaste for everything around him. The story whirls through Ursula’s childhood, allowing us to see the best and worst consequences of the First and Second World Wars, and the impact which such events had on one family, the endearing and wholly likeable Todds.

A rather playful structure has been used throughout Life After Life. There are eleven sections entitled ‘Snow’, five called ‘Armistice’, and three which fall under the optimistic heading of ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow’. The novel is set on rather a repetitive cycle, wherein the same days and events are played over and over again. Somehow, rather than making this monotonous, such repetitions never seem stolid or overly similar. The author brings new details to light in each chapter, building up her characters all the while. Others are introduced merely in order to avert crises – a fellow painting on the beach who heroically wades into the Cornwall sea to rescue Ursula and her elder sister Pamela when they are washed out of their depth whilst on holiday, for example. Strands of the story are woven through each section and are picked up like dropped stitches every once in a while.

Throughout Life After Life, Atkinson’s wit shines. When Sylvie Todd is musing about the death of her father, the following statement is uttered by the third person narrator: ‘He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously’. When talking about her neighbours, too, Sylvie’s naivety is rather touching in the most amusing way: ‘“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice as she would use for “Catholic” – intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism’.

Life After Life is an historical novel of the most contemporary kind, and its rather unique structure has clearly been deftly plotted. The entire novel is crammed with the wit, humour and compassion for her characters which is evident in every single one of her books to date. Atkinson captures each period which she writes about wonderfully, and she also weaves in the seemingly distant pasts of Hugh and Sylvie. Life After Life is certainly a strong and absorbing novel, and it is one which will surely not disappoint even the most reluctant reader of historical fiction.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Little Deaths’ and ‘The Memory Book’

Little Deaths by Emma Flint ***
9781509826575‘It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew. Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder? Haunting, intoxicating and heart-poundingly suspenseful, Little Deaths is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.’

The premise of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths intrigued me.  At first, her prose, with its element of mixed chronology, felt clever, and really helped to set the scene.  After a while however, the prose began to repeat itself at points, and there was an entire middle section which I found frankly rather dull and drawn out.  The period in which it was set – the mid-1960s in New York – was not very well evoked on the whole.  The background itself faded into the background at times, and the story was not well-grounded in Flint’s chosen period.  The novel did not feel quite consistent, but as is often the case with a murder mystery or thriller, one really has to get to the end to see who the crime was committed by.  In this instance, I guessed the perpetrator incredibly early on, so the whole held no real surprises for me.  Little Deaths is a book which I feel had far more potential than was utilised.

 

The Memory Book by Lara Avery **** 9781784299248
‘Samantha McCoy has it all mapped out. First she’s going to win the national debating championship, then she’s going to move to New York and become a human rights lawyer. But when Sam discovers that a rare disease is going to take away her memory, the future she’d planned so perfectly is derailed before its started. Realising that her life won’t wait to be lived, Sam sets out on a summer of firsts. The first party. The first rebellion. The first friendship. The last love.’

I don’t tend to read YA fiction, but as I am eternally fascinated by memory, the plot of The Memory Book certainly intrigued me.  The narrator, Sammie, is intelligent, which definitely helped to keep my interest as I was reading.  Neither she, nor her condition, are predictable in the least.  Avery’s novel is well structured and effective in its use of multiple voices; it tackles some important issues, and I will be highly recommending it.

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BookTube: Reviews – ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson and ‘Geisha of Gion’ by Mineko Iwasaki

In which I review two very different books – ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson and ‘Geisha of Gion’ by Mineko Iwasaki.

N.B. This is the last of the videos which I had filmed a couple of months ago and done absolutely nothing with – hooray!

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‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Up the Junction and Poor Cow, both better known works of Nell Dunn’s, have recently been republished by Virago.  As there are many elements which the books have in common, and as both share the same author preface, rather than address them separately, I have decided to write about them both together.  Nell Dunn’s introduction is like a story in itself, and tells of her life in Battersea from the late 1950s.  It includes such details as, ‘There were still a lot bomb sites, and my two-year-old son would be taken by the big girls and boys to play King of the Castle on the mounds of building debris’, ‘The night of Princess Margaret’s wedding everyone got drunk’, and ‘I bought my first pair of tight white jeans off a rail in the market’.  This introduction in a sense serves to ground the stories which follow it.

Up the Junction, first published in 1963, is made up of a series of short stories set in South London.  It was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and has also been turned into a film.  The tales in the collection are all heavily involved in the sense of a community and the mundanities of life in 1960s London.  This is clear from the titles of the stories alone, which range from ‘Out With the Girls’ and ‘Out With the Boys’, to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Wash Night’.  The book’s blurb states that the stories ‘are unhibited, spirited vignettes of young women’s lives in South London in the sixties [where] money is scarce and enjoyment must be grabbed while it can’.  To further set the scene, one supposes, all of these stories have been told by way of dialect heavy conversations between its characters – for example, ‘It’s me birthday tomorrer’ and ‘It’s better to marry an ugly man what’s got god ways than a good-looker what’s sly’.  It is not often clear who is speaking, so in consequence, the reader learns next to nothing about any of the characters who fill its 130 odd pages.

Three protagonists are followed in Up the Junction, Sylvie, Ruby and Lily, all of whom work at a local sweet factory.  The entirety of the book, on the surface of it, looks to be heavily involved with sexual politics, but as one reads on, the fixation upon aesthetics becomes clear.  Each of the characters seems to place much emphasis upon their own appearances, interrupting even important conversations to ask if their hair looks nice, or if their new item of clothing suits them.  Examples of this can be found in sentences such as this one: ‘[Pauline] was pretty in the dirty cafe; full ashtrays and dripping sauce bottles; sugar-bowls with brown clotted lumps in the white sugar’.

The stories are evocative of bygone times – there is lots of dancing, ‘snoggin”, institutionalised racism, National Health glasses, the pawning of furniture when money is tight, illegal abortions and the WVS.  Stories take place in the factory where the protagonists work, the local pub, the Old Kent Road, and various dwellings around the area.  Whilst interesting enough, these stories are relatively similar, and in consequence, nothing really stands out amongst them.  Sadly, the majority also do not feel well-developed enough to have any lasting effect upon the reader.  ‘Sunday Morning’, for instance, would have been far better with further explanation of the situation.  The illustrations, drawn by Susan Benson, are randomly scattered through the pages and rarely match the writing which surrounds them.  It does not feel as though there is much within Up the Junction which the modern reader will be able to identify with.  The simplistic writing style also takes away any atmosphere which the stories could feasibly have had.

Poor Cow was first published in 1967, and was Dunn’s second work of fiction.  Margaret Drabble, whose introduction to the story has been reprinted in the new edition, calls it ‘Touching, thoughtful and fresh…  A tour de force’.    In her introduction, Drabble states that after her move to London, Dunn ‘was soon to be writing of the lives of working-class women in a way that struck the same chords as the plays and novels of Sillitoe, Osborne and John Braine…  Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage, where they went their own ways, sexually and financially, where there was plenty of work’.

The novella tells the story of Joy, ‘twenty-one, with bleached hair, high suede shoes, and a head full of dreams’.  When the story opens, Joy is making her way down Fulham Broadway on her ‘slum-white legs’ with her new baby in tow, ‘his face brick red against his new white bonnet’.  ‘Her life seems to be a catalogue of disasters, which follow naturally and inevitably from the first false step of letting herself get pregnant’, Drabble says.  She adds that Joy’s husband, Tom, is a thief, ‘which translates her into a nice close-carpeted flat in Ruislip’.  Neither Joy nor her husband are content with their lives: ‘He always wanted more out of his life than what he had’.  When Tom is caught in a stolen car by the police, he is hauled in and sentenced to four years in prison: ‘… course he had only to do two years out of that you see…  But I hadn’t even the heart to sell the furniture, I just walked out and went to live with my Auntie Emm’.

The story is told in a variety of narrative styles, which chop and change at whim.  Joy’s own narrative voice is written in a similar dialect to that captured in Up the Junction: ‘Terrible when you ain’t got fuck all, you ain’t got nothing’.  As with Up the Junction, it is not always clear here who is speaking.  Poor Cow is not overly engaging, and the uncertain style of its writing and narrator let the story down somewhat.