Each Christmas The Wine and Ugg Book Society (aka my book club) gather for a suitably bookish festive season celebration. This involves lots of good food, an ample supply of wine (or cocktails!) and, of course, a book swap. The idea is that you select a book that you think others will like, wrap it up and then on the night they all go into the middle of the table. We randomly select a book from the table (or steal from someone else if they’ve opened something you can’t wait to get you hands on). It’s a lot of fun and we get a new book to add to the collection, often one we might not have picked up otherwise.
It was through this book swap that happened across Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and subsequently, the companion novel A God in Ruins. And I’m looking forward to making my way through her entire collection. She is a spectacularly good writer and offers one of those reading journeys that leaves you somewhat breathless and certainly not wanting to leave the world she has created. These are two pretty long novels and yet I still wanted more – that rarely happens to me!
The premise of Life after Life is this: Ursula Todd is born one blisteringly cold night in the middle of a blizzard. The doctor can’t get through, the newborn dies. Except that she doesn’t, or rather she dies many times over in many different ways. With each new version of Ursula’s life previous mistakes are righted and sometimes new ones are made, for Ursula is important and history will not see her written off before her eventual fate is met.
Atkinson’s plot structure is unique and innovative, she plays with time and history and weaves a coherent narrative into this meandering maze of a plot. What at first seems to make no sense, very quickly becomes clear and easy to follow. Character relationships, are slowly built up, each return to the past adding layers of depth and complexity to both Ursula and those she is surrounded by.
Much of the novel is set against the backdrop of WWII and the bombing of London, but this is no war book of the common variety and even those averse to reading war stories are encouraged to pick this one up. The story plays with themes like gender roles, degrees of personal responsibility, morality and intimacy.
It’s companion novel, A God in Ruins, focuses not on Ursula, but her most beloved brother Teddy. He is a bomber pilot in the WWII, flying daringly over Germany, dropping bombs and then turning tail and heading home, repeatedly. Bomber pilots have among the worst survival rates of the entire fighting forces of the war and Teddy doesn’t expect to live…. and yet he does. Learning to live with himself and in this unexpectedly long life is a challenge Teddy struggles with at every point, from marriage, to children and grandchildren. Nothing quite turns out as expected.
Again Atkinson brings her lyrical prose and unique form and structure to A God in Ruins. She is both darkly comic and bleak in the her characters and plot. I found myself in tears several times, especially with regard to Teddy’s horribly neglected grandson. Thankfully the story is also incredibly compassionate and redeeming.
I really can’t put adequately into words how much I enjoyed these two novels, how swept up in the grandness of the plot(s) I became or how fondly I took the characters into my heart (Ursula’s Aunt is someone I wish I really knew instead of just in my own head). I would love to hear your thoughts on these, if you’ve read them, or another novel that has truly transported you to another time and place.
Til next time,