Getting one chance in life is what we expect, life, after all, isn't a rehearsal. To get a second is less a rare privilege and more a dream come true. Or is it? Having chance after chance, without any one of them bringing resolution is tantamount to parking your coffin in hades.
Kate Atkinson's novel is reminiscent of Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s character is trapped in a recurring day. This superb story differs in that this isn't a loop played over with slight alterations being made, it is quite literally a case of Deja Vu, fragmentary moments remembered but indistinctly which draw us on until the ultimate conclusion.
Compared to David Mitchells loud Atlas (a book I thoroughly enjoyed), Life after Life isn’t as hard going The complexities of that fine novel, Cloud Atlas, meant the reader had to work hard to keep up. This is far more accessible, far lighter of touch even if not of concept. There is never going to be any free-wheeling, the reader still has to work with both prose and narrative which flips back on itself time and again.
There is no question that Kate Atkinson is a far better writer than many. She is placed among the heavyweights of literary fiction rather than commercial. Her work is a joy to read - moving, perceptive and funny. This, though, her ninth novel, is the most experimental she has thus far produced. Does she pull it off?
Atkinson deals the cards of her creation : Kings and Spades, Aces and Deuces. She fires them onto the green cloth in random order. It isn't until all the cards have been laid out that some order, some perspective is gained. Each chapter is a snapshot in time, shuffled then tossed. They form a mosaic as ink on white paper, fragments of a tale jigsawed apart. There is nothing overly clever about this novel, nothing too demanding. There is intelligence, though, for without invention intelligence is merely imagination without purpose. There most certainly is a purpose here.
Atkinson's effervescent style prevents any slowing of pace, or of any sluggish passages. There is no cloying sentimentality only a direct, candid delivery. The wit of the novel reveals itself in the concise way each false start, each death then brings unexplained rebirth . It is rather like placing a blunt pencil into a sharpener only to remove it before it has a fine point. This process is repeated over and over and each time it is so greater character definition arrives until the pencil point is at its sharpest. Dialogue is exquisite, realistic given the people and times portrayed - all very Virginia Woolf.
The language is precise. The prose perfect - "Mrs. Appleyard's 'alas' seemed freighted with all the tragedy of a broken continent." The war years, the blitz especially, is beautifully crafted, deliciously exposing how it must have been in both London and Berlin but it is the death(s) in the basement that is truly poignant and deeply moving. Each shift, each sudden change in para-reality brings sharper focus and character development whilst maintaining a pulsating vitality. This is fiction with an electric invention.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.