Life after Life – Review

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life after Life is a story about a baby, a child and a woman called Ursula who is gifted, or cursed, with the reliving of the same life and the ability to remember her previous lives. The story spans two world wars and its robust historical context provides a tumultuous and fascinating stage for the lives of Ursula and her family, lovers, friends and foe.

In each life, the protagonist effects a change in response to the last, and profound questions are raised both in her individual life stories and as a philosophical theme throughout the book about whether we have the capacity to change our fates and if we did, would it really matter?

It took me seventy pages to get into the story as it leaps across time and lives. This may just be my de-cluttering from the last book I read or a rather slow warming up period to adapt to a new type of narrative structure. But once I was in, I was definitely in and my struggle was rewarded handsomely.

I found the meditative circular rhythm of the many-ended story simply entrancing, soothing and strangely nourishing. Atkinson’s deliciously sophisticated structure serves to build up intrigue in Ursula’s life choices, events and relationships and a commitment to staying with her and finding out if she could and should make a difference.

I only finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago and while the concept, structure and context of the story has stayed with me, the characters are long gone and I’m struggling to remember their names. This is unusual for me. I normally remember people, even fictional ones.

Ursula has several lovers in various lives, but I did not get a sense that any of them were significant and they were quite forgettable. The only real tenderness seems to be for her brothers and her father Hugh, who was perhaps her only true love. I could attribute this to a learnt mistrust of men but her female relationships are all quite absent of emotion at the same time.

There is a distance in each character that keeps them on the historical stage, rather than bringing them to life. If it were only one or two characters, I’d assume it were intentional, but as it is most of them, for me, perhaps there is something about writing people into history and in emphasising the popular notion of a ‘stiff upper lip’ war-time mentality, contact with the frailty of human emotion is sacrificed or lost.

Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Life after Life. It is a brilliantly engaging novel for its intelligent narrative structure, grounding historical context and the philosophical questions it tantalisingly toys with on the cyclical nature of life and its infinite possibilities.

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Grandfather and the Giant

Drax Mike Harry

Grandfather worked down the mines.  He was an electrical engineer.   During the war he tried to sign up.  He wanted to join the Royal Air Force more than owt.  But they said no because they needed engineers at home to keep things running.  Granddad was very upset.  He felt bad about it.  Mum says he never got over it, not really.

He rallied his BSA motorcycle.  He liked going fast and getting muddy.  He met Grandma in Sheffield.  She was working as a nurse at a hospital for the war-wounded, doing her bit, you know.

In the 1970s, a power station was built in a village called Drax in Yorkshire.  Today, it has a really tall concrete chimney 850 feet high and she is mother.  Sunshine stored in black rocks from Africa and Siberia trundles into the power house.  Twelve brothers, 374 feet tall and 300 feet wide, wear concrete-grey suits and their white cotton-wool hair hangs in the wind on sunny days.  Granddad got a job at Drax power station.  He was pleased to leave the mines and turn coal into light.

They say it can make 4000 megawatts of leccy; that’s more than any power station in the whole of Western Europe.  They say it chucks out more carbon emissions than the whole of Sweden.  They say that wood pellets are de rigueur but they have to come from somewhere too.  Burning new American trees instead of old Siberian ones was not exactly what Mrs Green had in mind.  They store them in giant upside down eggs to keep them dry, adding more peculiar constructions to the horizon.

Drax Eggs

But it is a marvel of man’s engineering that makes me stop the car in a patch of muddy gravel when I see a gathering of cooling towers around a monolithic enigma through a clearing in blossoming hawthorns.   It is people like my Granddad that built and maintained this opus, this enemy of the planet.  In a way, even knowing what I know, I find it beautiful.  I am drawn to the magnificent scale of this engineered construction.  In its utilitarian grandeur I see a collaboration of men who had lived through a war and dared to dream.  They dared to dream of bringing light to every home in the country after a period of forced darkness.

And now, as a Londoner, I long for dark skies that I may admire celestial artistry and glimpse stellar worlds.  But if I were forced to sit in the dark, perhaps I would want to light up the planet too.

Granddad died a long time ago now.  He smoked like a power station chimney and he liked to sup a pint or twenty to wash down Grandma’s tripe and onions.

Perhaps, I’ll pay it a visit, take a photo.  Like granddad, I love the power station and I hate it too.

Drax 3

For the National Grid go here: http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/

Image 1 source: http://www.mikecurryphotography.com/portfolio/print/drax-power-station-vi

Image 2 source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/industries/utilities/article3829929.ece

Image 3 source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonobass/3635530311/in/set-72157619904132174