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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Die and be reborn - Resurrection of the main character in Life Afer Life

Yes, we're reading these out of sequence - a month ago finished Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and only later did I realize it's a sequel of sorts to her previous novel, Life After Life, which I'm reading now (as is the rest of Book Group?). It's clear they can be read with equal enjoyment (and puzzlement) in either order. They're about the same family (of 5 siblings), spanning most of the 20th century, God in Ruins about one of the sons, Teddy, who becomes a WWII fighter pilot and Life After Life about his older sister Ursula - and I'm not quite sure yet what becomes of her. I think I would have struggled to get ahold of this novel had I not already been introduced to each of the characters and to the setting - very English - by the sequel. Atkinson's a fine writer, but she pushes a lot at us without much context or setting, throwing us right in amidst the Todd family and their many servants and we figure things out as the narrative moves along - very much like Virginia Woolf at her best (Lighthouse, Dalloway). Life After Life seems much more a novel told in sequence than God in Ruins, which jumped about quite radically in time from chapter to chapter, with a cumulative effect. Life After Life begins with a scene in 1930 when Ursula enters a cafe in German and assassinates the young Hitler - or tries to - it's unclear from this first chapter who lives, who dies - and that's the motif that Atkinson plays w/ throughout the first 100 pp or so and maybe throughout the whole novel (and to a less extent in the sequel as well). After that first "teaser" chapter we learn of the Todd family early in the 20th century, and we see the birth of Ursula, who dies in childbirth. No, wait a minute - as we move on to the next chapter and she is an infant. In the first 100 pages she "dies" 4 times (childbirth, drowning, fall of a rooftop, flu - and maybe I forgot one?) and then "revives," so we see Atkinson playing around at the margins of fiction, showing us the godlike power of the author, making us think about what it means to "know" a character in a book. The question as we read is: Does this enhance the novel, provide any meaning or insight in the character and world Atkinson depicts, or are the multiple deaths a trick, a whimsy, a distraction, an affectation? In other words, your stance on this novel will depend on whether it's important to you as a reader that the author holds a mirror up to nature, or do you want to be (constantly) reminded that a novel is an authorial creation and not a representation, necessarily, of the world.

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