Life After Life: panel discussionby Guy Somerset
'I don’t reread many books but I’m looking forward to rereading this.'
This month, in a change from the usual format, our panel discussion is written rather than via a podcast.
Booksellers Jenna Todd, of Time Out Bookstore in Auckland, and Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb, of the University Bookshop in Dunedin, and blogger BookieMonster are talking with me about Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life.
The premise of the novel is simple: Ursula Todd dies and is reborn. Again and again. The novel spans both world wars and Ursula is given multiple chances to live her life over, to get it right. Life After Life is being hailed as one of Atkinson’s best novels and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) alongside heavyweights Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and NW by Zadie Smith (both former Listener Book Club choices).
"That was the trouble with time travel of course – one would always be a Cassandra – spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearingly relentless, but the only way one could go was forwards." p399.
Megan: Of course, Kate Atkinson proves forwards is not the only way a novelist can go. What did you make of Ursula and which of her many lives did you prefer?
BookieMonster: Ursula was a very likeable character but to be honest I didn't think of her as much of a Cassandra. I guess she developed as the book progressed, but for much of the novel she didn't fortell events but rather saw the paths open to her from the choices she made. In terms of the story, I liked the Blitz lives best, but that would have meant she didn't shoot Hitler so it seems sort of odd to feel that way.
Megan: The section aptly titled A Long Hard War represents the heart of the novel to me.
Bronwyn: The wars were big, important world-changing events but the novel also acknowledges that for each of us our own lives and the people in them are as worthy of examination as the big issues and events of history. Ursula's experiences of wartime London and the great losses that people experienced helped to focus her purpose.
BookieMonster: The Ursula living in Germany was really interesting, too, slightly harder and a lot more brittle, which seems odd because the Blitz would be enough to make anyone brittle.
Megan: The family was well drawn, although I sometimes found it hard to keep hold of all the characters.
Jenna: I loved how her relationship with her family changed depending on each scenario.
Megan: The point about not shooting Hitler is key. What did you all make of the Hitler/Eva Braun narrative? How essential was this thread of the novel?
BookieMonster: I have to confess the "shooting Hitler" idea reminded me a lot of Inglorious Basterds (which I hated, sorry everyone) and I kind of found it superfluous. I guess it's that revenge/what if you could go back in time fantasy thing.
Jenna: Shooting Hitler seemed like an example of a "what if" scenario that would get most people thinking.
Megan: It felt like a "commercial" ploy to me, something a marketing team might have needed to justify the book, but I didn’t need it and it didn’t add a lot.
Bronwyn: I wasn't fussed either way. It did help explain how Ursula gets into Hitler's inner circle, in a logical way, and it was an interesting exploration of Braun, who we know so little about...
Megan: Atkinson obviously had a lot of innate sympathy for Braun and there's another novel in there that could focus on Eva, the shop girl who wanted her life captured on film.
BookieMonster: Oh, intriguing!
Megan: What did you make of Ursula’s relationships, especially her marriage to Derek?
BookieMonster: Derek was an awful fate! That was a really hard read. It was probably the one life where I almost wanted her out of it.
Jenna: Oh, Derek! I could feel the chill and fear in that home. What a horrible man!
Bronwyn: Yes, Derek was nasty but Atkinson doesn't shy away from nasty. That particular life is confronting because we know that many women are living like this today, right now. I also thought there was hope in this life; before Ursula dies, she has already tried to disentangle herself from a bad situation, an unhappy choice. But as the book makes clear, there is little you can do to avoid your death.
BookieMonster: Atkinson captured an almost everyday low-level evil in Derek. I guess you could argue a parallel with Hitler if you wanted to get very existential.
Megan: The characterisation of women throughout the novel is fascinating. It made me really appreciate feminism and the choices we have as women now.
Bronwyn: Women’s lives have changed in practical terms, like having washing machines instead of servants or instead of being the servant who does the laundry. But there are also similar social conventions and constructions. Look at who the washing machine ads on TV are aimed at... women are still considered responsible for doing the laundry.
BookieMonster: Women have fewer choices in the novel, which I guess might have been an intentional irony, given Life After Life is so concerned with the effects of choice.
Megan: What did you think of Aunt Izzie vs Sylvie, the mother?
Jenna: I liked Izzie! I thought she was such a strong female character and a great role model for Ursula, even though it didn't always seem that way.
BookieMonster: The whole storyline about the son Izzie gave up for adoption to a German family was a touching exploration of not knowing where the decisions you make in life will take you.
Bronwyn: I liked Sylvie a little but never really warmed to her; Izzie was quite annoying but has inspired moments; both women's worst traits got more entrenched as they aged. Maurice was a pain but all families have several people like him in them. He felt like a real character so you accepted his unpleasantness, just as we all have another mince pie/glass of wine at Christmas, sigh deeply, and try not to start a fight with our own Maurice(s)...
Jenna: I'm not sure about Sylvie. I think she was more selfish than Izzie. Especially post-abortion Sylvie.
BookieMonster: Imagine having a rich brother who would pay for everything so you could just write books.
Megan: I think I would kill for that brother. What lines will stay with you? Did you have any favourites? What did you think of the whole snowflake analogy? The fox's and fox corner, etc?
Jenna: The snowflake is a little cheesy, but then that repetition is needed for easy understanding.
BookieMonster: Atkinson can write a mean descriptive analogy, but she can also overdo it.
Bronwyn: The writing sort of sparkles, not in a glitzy way but like one of those ephemeral cool snowflakes - fascinating, lyrical, beautiful, not like any other in the world.
Megan: The style was kind of breathless, fast paced, and often - but not always - funny.
BookieMonster: I quite liked the stiff upper lip. "Darkness fell, and so on." I giggled! Oh dear.
Jenna: I love the Edward Todd quote in the beginning: "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
Megan: What did this novel tell us about war?
Bronwyn: I didn't feel it was particularly about war as such. It captured the grinding slipperiness of life, people and behaviour in blitzed London in particular...
BookieMonster: War almost felt like an inevitable event of the 20th century. Which is very sad.
Bronwyn: I was very surprised to find myself tearing up in the first couple of pages when Ursula #1 & #2 die - and once I had read the whole novel that was still the part that most affected me - something, perhaps, about her not even having a chance at life?
BookieMonster: It was strange to be reading a storyline that was gripping but then have it just end. I grew to rather like it, though.
Megan: I found the repetition lulling. It was interesting to watch all the narrative dead ends, all the what ifs playing out. The scenes that made the most impact on me came from the Argyll Road bombing. The narrative circles back in on that event many times, so we see the cast as friends and then in another life as mere statistics...
Jenna: I liked reading about the everyday goings on during the war. Especially the repetition of the elderly women on the stairs. I can imagine not wanting to be in the basement without my knitting!
Megan: But at the same time the Blitz is completely true and people were pulled apart like fire crackers and people just had to get on with it.
BookieMonster: I can't think of anything else I've read around the Blitz that felt so genuine.
Megan: Independence for women is won, as well as the war. The novel depicts the transition from the married woman to the modern woman, abortions, affairs...
BookieMonster: It was a book where you didn't feel you needed romance for the main character at least. I found the romance with Crighton almost not that interesting.
Jenna: I feel like I never met Crighton properly, although this relationship showed her independence. I think Ursula was better when she was on her on.
BookieMonster: I agree. I liked her better on her own, too.
Megan: What did you make of all the dogs in the book?
BookieMonster: Does Atkinson have a dog motif?
Megan: There were a lot of dogs in this novel. The little dog lucky shivering in the doorway during the bombing just about broke my heart.
Bronwyn: The dogs were a lovely sort of punctuation, and I loved the foxes and snow - nature just keeps doing its thing, whatever people are up to.
Megan: It was strange to read a book where the character is always being reincarnated but there seems to be so little belief in life after death.
BookieMonster: I wondered about religion and reincarnation. There seems to be a driving force behind Ursula's being reborn and reborn but it's never explicit. Like the little girl who gets murdered, in a different life Ursula stops that happening. What is the force behind it all? I think these are questions that don't get answered..
Jenna: And she pushed her maid down the stairs.
BookieMonster: Yes, that incident brought up that whole question - can a bad act be in the service of the good? (It was funny, too.
Megan: What does the novel suggest about life/fate/luck?
Jenna: Life/ fate/luck: Oh gosh, so much for me. I read this book the week after one of our young staff passed away. Think of all of those lives that could have been lived.
BookieMonster: Wow, Jenna, that's really sad, that would have been very poignant.
Bronwyn: I think the novel is quite fatalistic: good or bad things just happen at random and one event can be both for several people, which is quite freeing, really, because you cannot worry about things you cannot change, you have to just find a way to live through them or not. It seemed to me that often Ursula welcomes or moves towards death; it was rarely frightening or dreaded and occasionally death was a better option than continuing to struggle on.
BookieMonster: I guess that’s the eternal question: if you could do it all over again, what would you change? What could you change? And how would you know it mattered?
Megan: I read this line from Atkinson in an interview: "I think about death a lot. I really do, because I can't believe I won't exist." But who can believe this one known truth, which can never be comprehended until it happens? That's the book's motor.
Jenna: What a wonderful quote. I think about that often, too!
Megan: On a more prosaic note, what did you think of the ending on Mrs Haddock?
BookieMonster: I guess it's like we've seen all these lives, all these possibilities, and Atkinson is taking us back to the place where they don't happen. Life goes off on another tangent.
Bronwyn: I quite like that I don't know. Would the first death have occurred if Mrs Haddock, the midwife, was there? And if Ursula hadn't died that first death would she have been born again or would that have been it for her. One life, one bite at the cherry...
Jenna: I felt like the narrative could have almost continued as Mrs Haddock’s story. In another book.
Megan: Would you recommend this novel? Any final words, before we take our own lives off on different tangents...
Jenna: Definitely. It's a compelling, thought-provoking read. We have sold truck loads already, it's an easy recommendation. A few are just coming in now after reading it; 99% have loved it.
BookieMonster: I would absolutely recommend it. Forget all preconceived notions and put aside a day to just read it from beginning to end.
Bronwyn: Yes and yes - and when is her next book out?
Jenna: Did you guys hear there is meant to be a Teddy spin-off?
BookieMonster: Jenna, I haven't heard that!
Jenna: Well, I can't remember where I heard it. It could have been a dream...
Megan: Did you adore Teddy?
Jenna: Yes, I loved how he came back to life. That was very heartwarming.
Megan: I liked the little dog called Lucky more. I am depressingly moved by animals. I fear it says something paltry about my character.
BookieMonster: I know what you mean. I am more moved by animals' emotions than people in books. I blame years of bad kids' movies where the poor animals were always knocked off at the end.
Megan: Despite Life After Life having the kind of girth that puts me off, I found it a very quick read and I recommend it. I'll reread it, too.
BookieMonster: I don't reread many books these days but I'm looking forward to rereading this.
Jenna: It will probably be made into a movie...
BookieMonster: I hope if it is it gets done well.
Megan: Yes, no Nicole Kidmans, please. No Tom Cruises.
Jenna: Or Rachel McAdams.
BookieMonster: No upping the romantic storylines.
Jenna: Or it could be very, very bad.
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