“Life After Life” Kate Atkinson

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is an astonishingly hard to categorise book. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy. And probably properly classified as “literary fiction”. We follow the life of Ursula Todd, born on 11th February 1910 to a well-to-do middle class English family as she lives her life over & over again. Every time she dies she starts all over again, and each time things go a little differently. Atkinson tells the story through a series of vignettes of the key events in each life. It’s very much a book where the journey is the point rather than the destination, and the structure of it reinforces that. We loop back over & over to the snow of February 1910 where each time the same(ish) scene is told differently. At the end of each life the refrain is “Darkness fell” (or words to that effect).

At first each life lasts a little longer than the previous one as Ursula avoids the pitfalls of early childhood. Just as I was starting to wonder if Ursula could remember anything from life to life Atkinson started to make it clear that there was some leakage – Ursula would have a sense of deja vu or a sense of dread. Later the memories that carry from life to life are more complete & there’s a sense that Ursula can choose how things are going to go this time round. There’s also the way that Ursula chooses more adult solutions to problems in later lives – at first to successfully get past a death from influenza in 1918 she can only resort to pushing Bridget down the stairs when the sense of dread hits her. In a later go round she engineers a falling out between Bridget & her fiancé which is a much more subtle way of preventing the trip to London (and gets Ursula into a lot less trouble).

The book doesn’t end where I thought it would – neither way I thought it would end, in fact. At first I’d thought that perhaps we’d see her live longer & longer – getting past the knot of deaths of influenza in 1918, and through the Second World War (another knot of deaths). But the life where we see her make it to 1967 & retirement isn’t the end. Another ending that wasn’t the way it ended was when we looped back to the very first vignette in the book – which isn’t Ursula’s birth, it’s 20 year old Ursula assassinating Hitler. It’s the classic time travel theme – prevent the Second World War by killing Hitler. And we do loop back to that, and it’s clear that Ursula is doing this knowing the consequences of Hitler’s rule of Germany. Interestingly, it’s not precisely the same scene that opened the book, some of the details are different. So we’re not seeing all the lives that Ursula lives, just key ones to give a flavour of the possibilities (just like each life we only see the key moments). But this is not where the book ends, either.

Which left me feeling a bit like I’d missed something with how the book did end. One of the phrases running through the book is “Practice makes perfect”, often said by Ursula’s mother. And there’s a strong impression that the last life we get a couple of scenes from is supposed to be the closest to perfection yet – Ursula’s mother manages to prevent Ursula’s death at birth despite the non-arrival of the doctor by having the right tools at hand. And Teddy, Ursula’s favourite brother, survives the war. Which implies that the war is somehow necessary? But then how would Ursula know – she doesn’t survive the assassination of Hitler either time we see it happen, so she doesn’t know if the world is better. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – maybe it’s just meant to be a sign that there isn’t an ending and Ursula will continue to live through all the possible permutations.

The characters are well drawn, and through the repeated lives you get to see how the core personality of each person stays the same but the way events fall out changes how that manifests. The centre of the story is always Ursula, but also prominent are Sylvie (her mother) and Izzy (her father’s younger sister) who are two opposing poles of role models for womanhood. Sylvie is a respectable housewife & mother whose whole self is poured into those roles. Izzy elopes at 16, she has a child out of wedlock, she writes novels & newspaper columns, she lives in London on her own. She is the epitome of the new freedom a single woman can have in the London of the 1920s & beyond. At first Sylvie seems the more sympathetic character, and Izzy to be rather selfish & scatty. But over the course of several lives Sylvie seems less selfless & a lot more concerned with appearances and with respectability, and Izzy is always there when Ursula needs someone.

This was a really good book. This time I’ve read it as a library book, but I think I might buy myself a copy – it’s a book that will be good to re-read. In particular later tellings of similar scenes often reveal a little more about some character’s motivations/personality so when you re-read you will get a bit of a richer experience. It seems apt that this is a story with themes of repetition with variation & of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s a book about which both of those things are true.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield; “The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Two books in one post, because I don’t think I’ve got much to say about either of these. I read most of both while we were up visiting J’s parents last weekend, tho I started “In Great Waters” before.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield

This book took a while to get going for me, then I found the end disappointing and too neatly tied up for my tastes. In this alternate history merpeople are real and the kings & queens of Europe are descended from a hybrid, who took control of Venice back in the day. Every non-landlocked country wants a hybrid ruler because then they can get their coastal merpeople to stop invasions from other countries. The merpeople (who are never referred to as that, they are deepsmen) aren’t quite intelligent although they have language and are almost “human”. Because the royal families all descend from one woman, and so have been interbreeding for several generations they have all sorts of health issues. But “bastards” i.e. non-royal-family hybrids are strictly forbidden & burnt to death if found.

The story is seen from two points of view – Henry, a bastard brought up by deepsmen for the first few years of his life before being cast out, and Anne, youngest daughter of the current English royal family which is in the midst of a succession crisis. I think one of my problems with getting properly sucked into the book is that Henry is pretty alien in perspective (good in theory, but didn’t help me get immersed) and Anne spends most of the book being a passive observer (not even always seeing enough to be sure what’s going on). So the story seemed to happen off the page for the first two thirds of the book, then suddenly our two characters are the centre of it all and everything gets resolved. And I think the implications are that we all live happily ever after, except for those who don’t. And I just don’t buy that.

I did like the pseudo-Tudor court with its paranoid politics. I also liked the way Henry goes through culture shock when he gets kicked out of his deepsman life into a landsman life – and never quite gets over his upbringing even if he gets socialised to some degree. It felt real and made for an interesting character. Just it was hard to sympathise with him and made the first few chapters which are solely his point of view more difficult to get invested in. Whereas Anne was sympathetic (and again felt real) but given it’s a plot point that she projected an image of being a bit “simple” in public there’s a lot of watching things happen around her.

“The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Got this out of the library due to a review which mentioned that George R. R. Martin has said that Druon’s books were an influence on A Song of Ice & Fire. Druon is a French author, who published the seven books of his Accursed Kings series in the 1950s in French (the translation I read was done by Humphrey Hare and I’m not sure if that was a new one for this edition or is the one done in the 50s).

The Iron King tells a fictionalised version of the last year or so of the reign of Philip the Fair, Philip IV of France. To give some context, for those like me who are shaky on French history, his daughter Isabella married Edward II of England. Their son was Edward III of England (and he’s the one that kicks off the Hundred Years War (post)). The bulk of the plot revolves around the final events of the prosecution & persecution of the Templars, and Isabella’s campaign to expose her brothers’ wives infidelity. I think it keeps fairly close to the actual events of history where they’re known (and it has footnotes telling you more details sometimes!).

I liked reading it, but it did feel rather old-fashioned. Not sure if I’ll seek out the others in the series or not. I might prefer to read an actual history book about these people instead.

“Ran Away” Barbara Hambly

A couple of months ago in a thread about book recommendations on Realms Beyond kjn said he thought Barbara Hambly hadn’t really found her voice until “Bride of the Rat God” and then the historical mysteries she wrote after that (by which I think he meant the Benjamin January books). Which I thought was interesting, because I’ve read several of Hambly’s books (including “Bride of the Rat God”) and enjoy them a lot but I haven’t actually read any of the Benjamin January series or indeed anything more recent than “Bride of the Rat God”. The ones I’ve read are mostly portal fantasies, published in the 80s & 90s. So when I saw “Ran Away” turned face out at the library and noticed the cover said it was “The new Benjamin January novel” I picked it up to read.

Benjamin January is a free black man, the son of slaves, who lives in New Orleans. This book is mostly set in 1837 (with an extensive flashback to Paris in 1827). He’s trained as a surgeon, but makes his living as a musician because in that time & place white people don’t like black people being medics. I assume the earlier books give some indication of how come he has the medical training and the rest of his good education in the first place – it’s not the subject of this book. There’s a few things like that which reminded me I was reading the most recent book in an established series, but in general it stands alone well.

The story opens with January being told by his mother that “the Turk” has murdered his two concubines that morning in a jealous rage – it’s the gossip of the town, with lurid details & everyone knows it must be true that a heathen like that would do such a thing. January insists that it can’t be true, he knows the man and knows he’s not like that. And then we’re off into a flashback to 1827 when January lived in Paris with his first wife, a North African ex-Muslim woman. Because of his medical training his wife enlists his help on behalf of one of the concubines of the Turk, who it turns out has been poisoned by one of the Turk’s other wives. When she then vanishes January is the person the senior wife of the harem comes to to help find her and make sure she’s safe. A bit hard to write that plot-starting summary because I don’t want to give away too much of how it works out. But suffice to say that this flashback (which is the first half of the book) demonstrates that indeed the Turk is not the sort of man to murder the concubines. The second half of the book returns to 1837, and January’s efforts to find out who did murder the dead girls and why. The two mystery plotlines are well done, I didn’t find the answers to them obvious at the beginning but when the story got there they felt right. They also linked together well, with things from the first half showing up in the second half (and something that had niggled at me as being unresolved in the first bit was in fact a minor plot point later 🙂 ).

When I think of Hambly’s books I think of well-drawn, solid feeling characters who are often square pegs in round holes and intricate societies where there are hierarchies & manners that keep people reminded of their place and role. (I’m not sure I phrased that well, hopefully I’ve got the idea across). This book is no exception to that – and in some ways is more unsettling because this is an actual society from history and people like January or any of the other main characters will’ve actually existed.

One of the themes of this book seems to be how all the different sub-cultures of “society” are actually much the same under the skin, and how petty all their reasons to feel superior to each other are. Like how much the high-society girls looking for husbands at the Paris balls are the same as the coloured demi-mondaine of New Orleans being presented to society to meet white “protectors”. And how the concubines of the Turk aren’t worlds away from these black mistresses of those white men, despite the latter despising the lives of the former. Or there’s the slave woman who is very clearly sniffy about January’s social status because he’s a darker black than her but he’s a free man and she can be (and has been) bought and sold with no respect for any of her wishes. And the French of New Orleans don’t mix with the Americans, the old aristocracy of France are “above” the “new people” who gained status with Napolean or in the Revolution. Having just read some 1930s stories I was particularly struck by how this is a book with many racist, classist and sexist characters, but it manages not to be a racist, classist or sexist story. People are people, good or bad or indifferent because of who they are personally not because of some stereotype.

I’m not sure I’d say that this is better than the earlier Hambly I’ve read (tho it’s been a while since I read the others), but I would definitely say it’s as good. She’s one of my favourite authors, and clearly I now need to buy everything else she ever wrote – I have about a dozen books already, but there seem to be at least as many others I’ve not yet bought, including the Benjamin January series 🙂