Kate Atkinson: Life After Life (review)

Life-after-life-cover‘And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur – if a dish was to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.’ (p. 127)

As a writer, I guess you sometimes sit down and write various things as anexercise to keep your juices flowing. Imagine your joy and/or surprise when you discover that your writing exercises is much more than use exercises and is actually something useful, something that can be turned into a novel.
I think that is how Kate Atkinson must have felt after writing several versions of the birth of a little girl and discovering that there’s something there, something more than just exercises. Discovering the spark that could become a book.
This is how I feel Life After Life starting. As a series of writing exercises that suddenly turned into something interesting. Ursula is born on February 11, 1910. And she dies that same night. But then she’s born again and manages to survive to the age of five years old – when she drowns. And is born again. And dies again at age five by falling from the roof. But slowly, she’s learning. She gets swimming lessons, she avoids climbing on the roof to get her toys and slowly, she grows older. She vaguely remembers her previous lives and what would have killed her in a previous life, she can avoid in a later life – even though it sometimes takes her several tries to get it right. Throughout the book I was so impressed with her ability to keep on writing the same scene over and over without it becoming boring in any way.
To judge by this book, life is sort of like one of those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books, so popular in the 80s. A situation is described and then you choose what your action will be – and either die or live. If you die, you can go back and try again and eventually you will manage to make it all the way to the end. Life is also changed by just one small thing being changed. Let’s say a boy kisses Ursula – this sends her down one chain of events and turns out to be a bad chain. In her next life, then, she avoids the kiss and a whole new chain of events unfolds. So it isn’t always her death she has to prevent, it can be a small events that triggers a lot of other events and she then has to stop or change that one event.
Ursula stumbles and falls and seems to be a very accident prone young girl but she learns. She learns how to survive the Spanish flu, she learns how to survive the London Blitz. But the lessons come with a price and for much of her life – for many of her lives – she isn’t happy.
Her childhood though, and Atkinson’s description of it, is marvelous. I enjoyed reading about Ursula and her siblings, her parents, her friends and all their dogs. It reminded me of parts of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book – which I also really liked. This also meant that I really started caring for Ursula and having a character you rather like die eight times in 140 pages can be a bit rough. And then there’s about 300 more pages after that.
This book definitely comes with it’s fair share of tragic events. We have abortion, so many deaths, wife abuse, love affairs, wars – and even Adolf Hitler. This is a historical fiction novel but with a strong philosophical overtone. Her descriptions of the events of World War I and II and especially the London Blitz are spot on and as Ursula gets to relive it several times, we get to do so too.
Time is just a construct in this novel. All that is real, is the now. There’s no stability and things just seem to go round in circles. Or so it is for Ursula. But is it that way for any other characters? There were times where I suspected it – but I’m not sure. And of course, philosophically speaking, to have only one person being able to change her life like this, seems to indicate that all the rest of the population is just figments of her imagination. And then we’re on the straight path towards solipsism – the worst philosophical evil in the world, according to my old philosophy professor. However, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying this book quite a bit. And any book that makes me wonder about determinism, the question of time, solipsism, the problem of identity through time and a whole list of other philosophical questions while caring about it’s protagonist and her troubles, is making me a happy reader.
Especially since this book is also funny at times. I noted down several wonderful quotes while reading this book: ‘She supposed she would go to bed with him eventually. There was no great argument to be found against it.’ (p. 368) or this one: ‘you should read philosophy at university, you have the right kind if mind for it. Like a terrier with a terrifically tedious bone.’ (p. 200) or this description: ‘Mrs Fellowes, a woman to whom nature had denied elegance and who always smelled vaguely of fried onions. Not necessarily a disagreeable thing.’ (p. 70). I also like that Ursula takes swimming lessons from a man who just barks orders at them until they are too afraid to sink! And I really enjoyed that the book Ursula uses to distract her while hiding out in the shelters during the London Blitz, is Proust: ‘Now that the war looked as if it were going to last for ever Ursula had decided she might as well embark on Proust.’ (p. 263). When nothing better to do in the middle of a war, read Proust!
The novel begins with Ursula trying to kill Hitler. The reason for this is fairly obvious, of course. ‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’ Ursula said. ‘If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’ (p. 261). But reading the book, you don’t really care much about whether she will succeed or not. What you do care about is whether Ursula manages to succeed in living the one life that’s her true life. If such a thing exists.

‘Sometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future.’ (p. 447)

First line: A fun of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.

  • Title: Life After Life
  • Author: Kate Atkinson
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 477 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

January 2014 – monthly update

So here we are again. January is over even though it feels like it has just begun. I read somewhere that as we grow older, it feels like the days go by faster because we notice fewer things each day because we have already experienced most of the day to day things and as long as nothing stands out, it all just flows by us. January  has been one of those months that has just gone by without too much fuss. It has been the darkest month in more than 40 years in Denmark and so has been a tough month to get through – but even though it felt like we would never get through it, suddenly it is just all over.
For some reason January always feels like a good reading month for me. I think it’s because it feels wide open and full of possibilities and opportunities. I still have all year to complete my reading goals so I can read whatever I want. Still, it feels important which book is the first in the year and this year has definitely come off to a good start.
tumblr_static_assassins_aprenticeI started off with The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb which was really good and which is responsible for introducing me to what will probably become a new favorite (fantasy) author. Fitz and the Fool and all the rest of her wonderful cast of characters will definitely stay with me and I can’t wait to not only go back into their world again but also meet up with them again.
I still have to post the review of the last book in the series but I will – and soon.
In addition to this trilogy, I read three other books this month. Two novels and a non-fiction. I really liked Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. It seemed like a book that started as a writing exercise but where the author discovered that this exercise could be so much more than just an exercise and turned it into a really fascinating novel about determinism and how to live life right.
the-waveEqually good but in quite a different way was Sonali Deraniyagala’s book Wave about her loss of her entire family to the 2005 tsunami. It was a heartbreaking book and her grief was palpable on every page. It was a difficult book to read but it was beautiful at the same time as it seemed that she used the book to keep her family alive.
Monica Ali’s untold story on the other hand didn’t quite work for me – in part because her portrayal of Princess Diana didn’t feel true to me.
So I ended up with having read six books this month and more than 3000 pages so I’m glad that I have been able to commit the time to these great books. Here’s a list of the books I did read this month and with links to the four reviews I got around to writing.

  1. Robin Hobb: Assassin’s Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy#1)
  2. Robin Hobb: Royal Assassin (The Farseer Trilogy#2)
  3. Robin Hobb: Assassin’s Quest (The Farseer Island #3)
  4. Monica Ali: untold story
  5. Sonali Deraniyagala: Wave
  6. Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

Notice something special about this list? Yeah, it’s all women writers. And not because of the #readwomen2014 because I only just read about that the other day. I decided to start the year with Robin Hobb’s fantasy series not because she’s a woman but because I was looking forward to reading it. While reading it, I read an article about a women who had read only women writers for an entire year and had concluded that it wasn’t enough to just read women writers but you had to choose good and different female authors too for it to really count. And I thought to myself that it could be fun to do a month of reading female authors only and so far, I’m enjoying myself a lot. So much so that I’m continuing this way of reading and that I’m going to write a blog post about reading only female authors.
So yay me for jumping on a band wagon I didn’t know existed… Funny how so often when you feel like you’re just a tiny bit original, everyone is doing the same thing.

And I did it again … (Book Buying 2013 – part 4)

It’s not like I don’t own enough books. I already have more than 200 books on my to-read list – and this is books I own (we’re not talking about my wish list in this post, that’s even more out of control). Anyway, even though I clearly have more than enough books on the shelves in my living room, I simply can’t resist a good bookstore. And recently, I’ve visited three good bookstores so of course, I had to get something. And I’m actually proud of myself for only buying 5 books. That’s less than 2 books per store so really, I can spin this so I deserve a pad on the back!

So here’s what I bought:

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  • Kate Atkinson: Life After Life. This is one of this year’s new releases that I’m really excited about. A baby is born in 1910 and dies before she can take her first breath. But in 1910, the same baby is born and lives on. How exciting does that sound? And the cover on this edition is gorgeous! And I love this quote on the back cover: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
  • Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master’s Son. So this is one of last year’s most exciting releases. I’ve been curious about this book ever since I heard about it for the first time. A book taking place in North Korea with a main character who is a rival to Kim Jong II – it is simply not possible not to be excited about this one! And since it has gone on to win the Pulitzer this year. So I’m really looking forward to reading this one!
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. I read this one back in 2010 and really loved it. I knew that I wanted to get my own copy of it at some point and that this book has the potential to become a favorite of mine. When I saw this 50th Anniversary Edition, I just thought this would be as good a time as any to pick it up.
  • Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone. I read The Woman in White last year and absolute loved it. I also read Dan Simmons’ novel Drood where Wilkie Collins is the main character and among other things talks about the inspiration for The Moonstone. I really want to read this book so couldn’t resist this one either.
  • Julian Barnes: Arthur & George. I have this on my list of books I want to read after having read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. And I have been wanted to read something by Julian Barnes ever since he won the Man Booker for The Sense of an Ending. I haven’t seen this book in the stores before so I grasped it as soon as I saw it.

So that end’s this latest book buying spree. And it brings my to-read list to 208. And it means that I have bought 24 books this year. I’ve read 6 of them so far so I need to get moving on reading more of them especially since I have a goal of having less books on my to-read list when the year ends than when it began – and I’m not doing so good on this goal…

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New books in 2013

So I know I already did a list of my Top Ten Most Anticipated Books for 2013 – but 10 is not enough! There are so many good books coming out next year that I had to make another post about them. So here they are – 12 more books!


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  1. Amish Tripathi: Immortals of Meluha (Shiva #1). This is the first book in the Shiva trilogy, a fantasy series about hindu gods. How cool does that sound?
  2. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Watcher in the Shadows. I really liked The Shadow of the Wind and this book about a mysterious toymaker who lives as a recluse in an old mansion surrounded by his magical beings sounds so amazing.
  3. Kate Atkinson: Life after Life. One night, Ursula Todd is born but dies before she can draw her first breath. On the same night, Ursula Todd is born and lives on to lead an unusual life. Doesn’t this sound extremely intriguing?
  4. Ma Jian: The Dark Road. The tagline of this novel reads ‘If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates. But if a woman gets pregnant she’s treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?’, how can I resist that?
  5. Matt Bell: In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. A young couple is unable to have children so the husband takes it out on every animal living in the lake and the woods. The wife somehow learns to sing objects into being. It sounds like a fascinating book about what happens when you so badly want children but is unable to have them.
  6. Marjorie Celona: Y: A Novel. A book about an abandoned baby, the mother who left her and the man who found her. It sounds heartbreaking and beautiful.
  7. Joe Hill: NOS4A2. This book is an example of a book where the title alone sells it!
  8. Stephen King: Joyland. King has two books coming out this year and this is the first one. It’s about amusement park serial killers and I don’t t need to say more because if you like King, you will get this!
  9. Douglas Lain: Billy Moon: A transcendent Novel reimagining the Life of Christopher Robin Milne. This is one of the books I’m probably the most excited about. I think it’s some kind of twisted look at Christopher Milne’s childhood and on the Winnie the Pooh stories and I can’t wait!
  10. Andrew Pyper: The Demonologist. This sounds like some kind of Da Vinci Code book but taking Paradise Lost as it’s starting point. And that’s is it’s selling point to me.
  11. Cassandra Rose Clarke: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Cat’s tutor is a robot who is perfectly happy to just teach her. But then the government grants rights to the robot population and suddenly, Finn has to find his own place in the world. Another great sounding novel!
  12. Warren Ellis: Gun Machine. A detective finds an apartment filled with guns. Each gun leads to a different, previously unsolved murder. This book sounds just so cool.

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