When literary invention gets in the way of character
I’ve recently finished reading ‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson. It took me forever to read, not only because it’s 611 pages long, but because after a while I could hardly bear to read it.
I had high hopes for it. From the praise on the front cover: Dazzling, Gillian Flynn; A box of delights, Hilary Mantel; Triumphant, Daily Telegraph, to winner of the Costa Novel Award 2013, to the premise ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’, I thought I was in for a great read. And at first, that was the case.
From the back of the book, I learnt that this is a story of alternative lives:
‘During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.’
Interesting concept? I thought so. I’ve read a book by Lionel Shriver ‘The Post-Birthday World’ about events having different outcomes, and found it fascinating. I remember a film ‘Sliding Doors’ with a similar theme. So far, so good.
But after a while with ‘Life after Life’, I began to lose interest. The key character, Ursula, lives so many different lives, and dies in so many different ways, that in the end I didn’t care what happened to her. The literary high jinks got in the way of engagement with the character. Some of her lives were intriguing, but they all ended up as no more than vignettes. The lives went round in so many circles that I lost any sense of story, and I think in fiction ‘Any box of delights’ must have character and story to the fore.
Others have loved this book. The reviews on Amazon range from 978 5-star through to 270 either 1 or 2-star, although one of the glowing tributes ends with I must admit I felt a little bit tired towards the end with the way the story progressed.
My overall feeling was MUCH stronger and I can use a quote from the novel to describe it: She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain. … She was in Belgravia before she flagged completely. Here too, she thought. She had been here before. She had never been here before. I give in, she thought. Whatever it is, it can have me. She sank to her knees on the hard pavement and curled up in a ball. A fox without a hole.
Tags: Character, literary inventiveness, story