By Chet Yarbrough
“Life After Life”, though written by an accomplished author, is not a very good book. This opinion is disagreed with by a New York Times’ review and other judges of modern fiction. Ms. Atkinson is being considered for a women’s fiction prize; and who knows, maybe a Pulitzer.
Privileged to read “The Orphan Master’s Son” before it was published, this blog reviewed Adam Johnson’s book. A summary statement in the review said, “Johnson’s book reads like a comic book episode of Captain America or, more aptly, Captain Korea.” And further, “The hero’s tortuous flight to freedom is unconvincing.”
Well– “The Orphan Master’s Son” was published in 2013. Adam Johnson received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction which suggests Yarbrough’s review of fiction is not to be taken too seriously.
“Life After Life” is written with artful elegance but a repeating story of one woman’s life with changed circumstance and perspective reminds one of Bill Murray’s movie, “Groundhog’s Day”, without comedic relief.
Kate Atkinson’s main character, Ursula, is born several times and lives different versions of her life before and after the Great World Wars. In one life, Ursula is born dead; in another she drowns; in another she kills herself. Eventually, she gets most of her life right and lives to the, not so ripe, age of 60; felled by natural causes, a stroke or heart attack.
With each Ursula’ incarnation, Atkinson cleverly changes the past and future based on a déjà vu paradigm, an instinct of past occurrence, that causes Ursula to modify her behavior. In her first life, an umbilical cord strangles Ursula because the doctor does not arrive in time. In Ursula’s second life, the doctor arrives, cuts the umbilical cord and changes the future. The trouble is that Ursula, as a baby in a mother’s womb, is a beginning without a precedent existence. How did Ursula, before birth, affect the timing of a doctor’s arrival in the second incarnation? “Precedent cause” may be a quibble but the heart of the novel’s failure is character development. Ursula’s fate means little to a reader who does not identify with the heroine’s existence.
There is mild interest in Ursula’s fate and some fascination with Atkinson’s reflection on human terror and consequence from Germany’s bombings of London, Russia’s move into German territory as the Nazis retreat, and Hitler’s strange appeal to Eva Braun. But Ursula is a cipher, a thing of no value, except as a cog in the machine of history. A reader neither loves nor hates Ursula. In contrast, most readers love Jane Eyre; most readers love characters in Dickens’ novels; most readers love the heroine in Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth”.
However, even an ignorant critic is impressed with Atkinson’s erudition, descriptive writing, and imagination. It is considerably easier to criticize than do.