Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog: A NovelStarted Early, Took My Dog: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kate Atkinson does this thing that I love, it’s a thing director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants” “Sideways” “About Schmidt”) and my favorite girl, Jane Austen, do that I just eat up. These artists excel at creating anti-heroes, be it Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, Payne’s Miles (though lion’s share of credit should go to writer Rex Pickett for Sideways), or Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy, who aren’t afraid to mock their own bad luck and bad moods. There is always a steady stream of wit and irony coursing through the narrative that keeps grim circumstance from becoming maudlin.

Of course, a deeply-flawed protagonist in crime fiction – whether she be a private dick or he a DI – is par for the course. What makes Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series so compelling is the author’s brilliant prose. She takes the rote scenario – a tossed-about, lonely, erudite investigator solving mysteries more through happenstantial coincidence than skill – and injects it with unexpected but delicious detail in syntax that delights. It’s like being told grilled cheese is for lunch and being presented with just-melted burrata, fresh tomato and basil on grilled pagnotta. Comfort food with panache.

Started Early, Took My Dog – Atkinson’s fourth featuring former solider and policeman Jackson Brodie – offers far more in the satisfying character department than handsome, lovelorn, brooding Brodie. I will fully own my sucker’s heart for The Ambassador, Jackson’s foil who doesn’t object to being trundled about in a large sack. Senile actresses, slimeball cops, meth-ed out prozzies are vivid and compelling fodder. We are introduced to mall security guard Tracy Waterhouse, she of size extra-large slacks and size extra-large heart. I hope like hell we see more of brave and hilarious Tracy. She is more than Jackson’s match in ironical survival. And her small but fierce appendage will break your heart a hundred times over:

“Courtney, on the other hand, had made more of an effort, dressing herself from a selection of yesterday’s new clothes. Some of them were on backwards but she had got the general idea right. Tracy’s efforts at hairdressing the previous evening weren’t entirely successful. In the cruel light of day the kid looked handmade. She had finished her cereal and was staring, Oliver Twist-like, at the empty bowl.”

I did feel a twinge of annoyance at the messy nature of Jackson’s personal relationships; he is too easily cowed by the women he has loved and with whom there is a history of mutual neglect. Jackson has a hard time moving on, but Atkinson uses these relationships as a plot device to give her characters context and to ground them in the present.

As important of features as wit and irony play in Atkinson’s narrative, they do not overshadow the intelligence and humanity that run deeply through her stories. Perhaps more than the three novels that preceded it, Started Early… challenges the moral centers of its characters and readers. They and we are compelled to question the rights of parents vs. the welfare of children, the nature of identity and family, and the true victims of drug dependency and prostitution.

The crimes and misdemeanors at the heart of Started Early… stand alone for those uninitiated to Ms. Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie oeuvre. But do yourself a favor, partake of the whole rich banquet.

And how could I not love this story, when its title was inspired by Emily. Dickinson, that is:

I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

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