I recently read the first of the Jackson Brodie novels, ‘Case Histories‘, by Kate Atkinson which I thought was pretty good but not truly amazing. Several other bloggers left comments suggesting that I might prefer Atkinson’s other stand-alone novels, particularly ‘Behind The Scenes at the Museum’ and her most recent work, ‘Life After Life’, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I am pleased to say that they were right!
The basic concept behind ‘Life After Life’ is sort of similar to the film ‘Groundhog Day’ but in a very different setting with less humorous consequences. Born on a snowy day in February 1910 to a well-off family, Ursula Todd lives her life several times over. However, unlike Phil Connors, Ursula is unaware of this although she often has feelings of déjà vu. The book concentrates on several alternative versions of pivotal moments which take her life in very different directions. In one life, she dies after falling off the roof of her house in a childhood accident. In another life, she is stillborn, strangled by her umbilical cord. In another life, she marries an abusive husband. In another life, she lives in Germany where she befriends Eva Braun….and so on.
I noted that one of Atkinson’s main strengths in ‘Case Histories’ was how she weaved together the three different strands of the story. Despite the rapid chronological shifts in time, she is equally skilful at weaving together the different versions of Ursula’s life and the characters that feature in them. There are some features which remain the same in all versions of Ursula’s life as well as hints of residue from her previous lives. Retelling the story with the same characters but with subtle differences really shows off how inventive Atkinson has been in exploiting the main concept and the way she does it is very satisfying. She also captures British middle-class life in the first half of the twentieth century brilliantly, especially in the wartime scenes.
In spite of Hilary Mantel’s dominance over literary awards in recent months, I think ‘Life After Life’ could be a real contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. I will definitely be searching out ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ but this week I will (finally!) be reading ‘NW’ by Zadie Smith and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel before the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings event on 4th June…