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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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Du Maurier December: ‘The Flight of the Falcon’ by Daphne du Maurier **

The Flight of the Falcon was the penultimate book which I chose to read for my du Maurier December project.  First published in 1965, the novel is set in the fictional city of Ruffano in Italy, which was inspired by a real city, but contains a plot and characters of du Maurier’s own creation.

The Flight of the Falcon begins in the twentieth century, in an Italian city with an incredibly violent history.  The face of Ruffano is being modernised, around the focal point of its university.  In present-day Ruffano, ‘Austerity was banished.  The young, with all their fine contempt for dusty ways, had taken over’. The town has rather a sinister edge to it; there are those who follow students around at night, and a secretive society within the wider university organisation.  A student named Caterina tells our narrator the following: ‘But I’m sure of one thing.  I would never walk about Ruffano by night without at least half-a-dozen others.  It’s all right round here, and in the piazza della Vita.  Not up the hill, not by the palace’.  Parallels are drawn ‘through murder, humiliation and outrage’ from the very beginning between the present day and the story of Duke Claudio, the Falcon, who lived five hundred years before.

The narrator of the piece, Armino Fabbio – known as Beo – currently works for Sunshine Tours, and describes himself as a courier; a ‘guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls…  A courier can make or break a tour.  Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old’.  The novel’s first main plot point comes when the body of a woman is discovered with a stab wound.  Those on the tour with Beo had seen her the previous evening, passed out drunk on a bench.  It turns out that she and Beo share a past connection, and Beo then has to deal with the fragmented memories of his childhood which become interspersed with his present: ‘I stood watching my grip, a wanderer between two worlds.  The one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent.  The dead should not return.  Lazarus was right to feel foreboding.  Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb – but in vain’.

The most interesting element of the plot comes when Beo, who returns to Ruffano and is employed as a temporary librarian, stumbles across a book which details the past of the city’s infamous Falcon, Claudio Malebranche: ‘A youth of outstanding promise, he became intoxicated by good fortune, and casting off his early discipline he surrounded himself by a small band of dissolute disciples, and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties.  No one could walk by night for fear of the Falcon’s sudden descent into the city, when, aided by his followers, he would seize and ravage…’.  The present and past stories converge through the guise of the town’s annual festival, entitled ‘The Flight of the Falcon’.

The elements of crime novel within The Flight of the Falcon tend to become glossed over after a while, and are not quite built up enough to keep the reader guessing.  Beo’s first person male narrative voice is believable, but it does not feel as compelling or as well built as those in books such as My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand.  I could have quite happily put The Flight of the Falcon down at any point and not picked it up again; I did not feel as though I particularly had – or even wanted – to know what was going to happen within its pages.  I did not feel an ounce of compassion on behalf of the narrator, even when he was descriving some of the sadder things which had happened to him, and there was a relatively detached air to the whole.

At first, The Flight of the Falcon is a relatively easy novel to get into, but the pace is rather slow and it does tend to become bogged down in details from time to time.  The dialogue is sodden with mundane and superfluous details.  It did not feel as though du Maurier was perhaps as comfortable with her setting as she is with those books which take place in the United Kingdom and in France.  I had the feeling throughout that something pivotal was missing from the novel.

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Flash Reviews: Historical Novels (23rd May 2014)

I am still on my blogging hiatus as I write this, but the reviews which I feel I have to write are mounting up.  I thought that a good idea would be to split up the outstanding works which I have to write about into categories, and to then post short and succinct reviews about them without going into too many details.  Each will include a short summary of the story, and three thoughts about it.  The first of these such posts deals with historical novels.

‘Julius’ by Daphne du Maurier (Virago)

The Progress of Julius by Daphne du Maurier *** (1933)
Storyline: Our protagonist is Julius Levy, a Jewish boy living in France, who turns into ‘a quick-witted urchin caught up in the Franco-Prussian war’.  The novel spans his lifetime, from his birth in 1860, to 1932.

1. Du Maurier never fails to strike me with the evocation of scenes which feel so real, it is though I am there.  The sense of history here is stunning.
2. Julius’ behaviour is rather peculiar at times.  He is cruel, and the actions which he performs often feal surprising.  He is odd and rather creepy, and I took an almost immediate dislike to him.
3. The Progress of Julius feels a lot darker than much of du Maurier’s other work.  I was not overly enamoured with its plot.

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The Night of the Burning by Linda Press Wulf *** (2007)
Storyline: The novel opens in Pinsk in Poland, and follows two sisters, Devorah and Nechama, orphaned after

‘The Night of the Burning’ by Linda Press Wulf

‘The Night of the Burning’ and consequently sent to South Africa, with many other displaced children.  The novel is based upon a true story.

1. The premise of the book is interesting, and brings to light an important element of how the authorities tried to help children during World War Two.
2. The writing is quite simple, to suit its audience; I imagine that I would have enjoyed it far more as a child than I did as an adult.
3. The differences between Christians and Jews are set out well, particularly with regard to the intended audience of the novel.  It feels very informative, and I would highly recommend it for children or young adults who have an interest in history.

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‘Two Brothers’ by Ben Elton (Black Swan)

Two Brothers by Ben Elton **** (2012)
Storyline: A Jewish woman named Frieda gives birth to twin boys on the same day in which the Nazi Party is formed, one of whom is stillborn.  In the hospital at the same time, a German Communist mother passes away after giving birth to a healthy son, and Frieda adopts him.  The boys are still brought up as twins, and problems ensue when the iron fist of Nazi Germany starts to close around the Jewish race.

1. The historical background is set so well, and the period details which Elton uses throughout – from jazz to Suchards chocolate – help to ground it in time.
2. The storyline veers off in unexpected and surprising directions throughout, and holds the interest of the reader from the very first page.
3. Elton throws up so many issues of importance, and has created such a thought-provoking novel, which lingers in the mind for a long while after the book is finished.

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