Friday, June 10, 2016
Death and resurrection - in Life After Life - and why that's a problem
Sounding like a broken record but here goes: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life continues to have some of strongest, most convincing, most vivid account I've ever read of the London bombings during WWII, seen from the POV of ordinary Londoners trying to live their lives w/ that famously British stiff upper lip, or, as she says a few times in the course of the novel, "needs must" - much of the narrative following closely the POV of the protagonist, Ursula, who spends time as part of an air warden team and experiences some horrifying, grisly moments - and gradually becomes inured to the sight of death and mutilation and destruction. She captures not only the facts of the bombings but the very sense in living through, the odor, the grit on face and tongue, even the sense of touch - description of stepping on the body of a dead child, the squishiness of organs. Lots of literary references - maybe too many for some - though it's fun in a snobbish way to try to ID her citations. So why can't she construct a novel out of this material, why does she break all convention and have her protag lead several lives, dies multiple times: If she "needs must" provide is with a multiplicity of experiences and points of view, why not tell this story through several characters? And as we hit about the 75 percent mark, she has a penchant for odd and unexpected encounters among the characters: that strange feeling, which Anthony Powell played out in a comic way, of there being only a few hundred people in all of London and they're constantly coming across one another. Of course one of the powers of wartime writing is that characters get plucked off the "stage," they don't get to finish the arc of the narrative of their lives; in this novel, sudden death has much less of an effect on this because we're always thinking the death can be rectified, and the character resurrected, by authorial authority.