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.

fox png image, free download picture

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  1. Becky gethin says:

    Quite agree with you!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Oh, that’s interesting, Becky. We obviously share the same ‘impeccable’ taste!

  3. Maureen Hall says:

    Read the reviews of this and thought ‘too much like “Groundhog Day”. Give it a miss.’ I’m glad I did now!

  4. I lived Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World – what a great book. This one, however, sounds not so great. Thanks for sharing x

  5. Derek Taylor says:

    Yes I agree on the whole. It is too contrived. I’m now well into KA’s latest, “A God in Ruins.” Although it does leap backwards and forwards in time a lot, it’s still followable and as a result a lot better. Her direct, simple style of writing with an edge of humour is enough to attract me to her work.

  6. Polly says:

    Haven’t read it – quite enjoyed the film Sliding Doors – but it looks as if this one takes it a step or two too far.

  7. Lindsay says:

    Certainly didn’t work for me, Mo, but judging by the reviews it did for at least 978 people!

  8. Lindsay says:

    They’re only my feelings, Jo, but if someone can convince me otherwise … !

  9. Lindsay says:

    I like the leaping backward and forward in time, Derek. In fact, I agree with parts of that last quote – time leaking into the present and the future spilling into the past – but this novel didn’t help give me that sense.

  10. Lindsay says:

    It’s my response, Polly. Others obviously feel differently.

  11. Hilary Robb says:

    A very interesting review, Lindsay. Thank you. I have read others of Kate Atkinson’s books and enjoyed them very much. I have Life after Life lined up to read but have shrunk from tackling it because of its size and because of mixed reviews from friends. I still intend to read it, in order to make up my own mind, but it clearly requires some stamina.

  12. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for commenting, Hilary. Reviews of books are very subjective, and this book seems to be one of those that a lot of people have raved about, while a significant number didn’t rate it. I hadn’t read the reviews before I read the novel, and I enjoyed it initially. It was probably about half way through that I started to get frustrated, and then decided I didn’t care any more. I’d be interested to hear your view – once you’ve built up the stamina!

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