Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

“A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.”

Ursula Todd is born and dies. Ursula Todd is born, and manages not to die, at least for a while longer. Again and again her life is reset, as she falls foul of accidents and illness. Eventually it seems as if some of the past experiences seep into her unconscious, and she starts to shape events without really understanding why.

“Everyone seems to be waiting for something, Ursula thought. ‘Best not to wait,’ Izzie said. ‘Best to do.‘”

LAL is an odd book to get into. The first several chapters are told more from Sylvia’s viewpoint – Ursula’s mother, given Ursula is a baby. The switch to the ‘real’ main character thus takes a bit of getting used to, and does make the first part of the book feel a little disjointed. More, Sylvia never really returns as a strong presence, really, which makes it all doubly odd.

The repetition works far better than I’d feared: just before I got fed up of it, we start skipping the early/survived bits, and start taking more divergent paths through Ursula’s adult life. It seems that she tries out every way to experience the war that shapes her life and the story, including at least once from inside Nazi Germany. To what purpose? Well, that’s never really explicitly answered – it’s up to you, the reader, to decide, I think. The ending is the subject of much discussion online – and maybe that’s the point, this is that kind of ‘literary’ book, that’s meant to leave you asking questions.

So what is the book about? Partly, it’s the butterfly effect-esque exploration of how tiny alterations can make huge differences down the line. Mostly, though, what I got out of it was an examination of the second World War and life in that time period, and – occasionally – life afterwards, from the viewpoint of different kinds of lives. That it was fundamentally the same character in each just highlighted the circumstances over the person, and sometime the arbitrary cruelness or otherwise of life.

“They were the kind of clothes that might turn you into someone else.”

It’s not a book for everyone, and certainly not for every mood. I surprised myself, though, in soon becoming utterly gripped by the whole thing – a real rush home to snuggle up with kind of a tale. And while much of the material is very dark indeed, overall I found the whole thing oddly uplifting. Worth the awards – and the attempt, at least!

“Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”

Paperback: 610 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2013
Read from 28th September – 5th October 2015

My rating: 9/10

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How to be Both – Ali Smith

Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook…

The words ‘Award Winning’ usually have me running for the hills – Oscar nominees are usually very good, very boring films, for instance! But somehow, the accolade of winning the Man Booker Prize this year brought this book to my attention and I thought, why not shake my reading up a bit?

The big marketing ‘thing’ with this book is that the two sections can appear in either order. They are linked, but fairly loosely.

My copy started with the section on 15th Century artist, Francesco del Cossa – who, I only learned after reading, was a real person. I might have enjoyed this part of the book even more had I known I could go google for some of the artwork being described – so, maybe do that!

There are more than a few reviews suggesting that this section was difficult to enjoy, and had to be returned to after reading the more modern half. I confess, the opening few pages almost saw me give up: the stuttering stream of consciousness just did nothing for me, nor the repeated use of “Cause” for because, and “Just saying” – not very in-period, really! But I love art, and this period, so it wasn’t too hard to keep going. However, it all ends rather abruptly, and so I went on to the other section hoping for some explanations…

The other half of the book follows George struggling to cope after the death of her mother, in a contemporary setting. It’s (clearly!) very well done, interspersing grief and memories and the struggle to keep going with modern life. But of course, as it doesn’t actually ‘follow’ the tale of del Cossa, there is no resolution to be had.

So here’s the thing: literary fiction isn’t my usual read, and it sort of grates on me that it ‘gets away’ with a whole pile of things that so-called genre fiction wouldn’t. Like, no real plot, and certainly no real resolution(s). The two parts of the book do tie together, in a fashion, but with minimal explanation.

Overall, it’s obviously very well written, and the prose is a joy to simply read. But while it deals with art, and death, and grief, and all sorts of other ‘real’ stuff admirably, I can’t help but feel a small ‘well, what was THAT about?’. Maybe the flaw is mine, and I’m simply not deep enough for this kind of book! 😉

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment…

HB: 372 pages, 2 sections which can be read in either order.
Read 13th – 25th June 2015

My rating: 7/10