By Kate Atkinson
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILER
Have you ever tried a new food and thought happily, ‘Wow, this is so easy to chew!’ It might just be me, but I doubt it somehow. Some foods are wondrously easy to chew: texturally satisfying while still working your jaws enough to justify their status as solid foods. Foods for which the ease of chewing is part of the pleasure of eating them.
That’s how I feel about ‘Life After Life’.
‘Life After Life’ is one of Kate Atkinson’s stand-alone novels (as opposed to her Jackson Brodie series, which I really like). Its protagonist, Ursula Todd, is the third child of Hugh and Sylvie Todd. She is born on February 11, 1910, with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She is strangled.
And then reborn. And reborn again.
Ursula Todd dies many times, and in many different ways. She will drown as a little girl, be killed by the Spanish Flu, bombed in the blitz, murdered by a husband. Each life will be a little different, some better, some worse. Ursula will learn and forget and learn again, carrying vague memories, suspicions, hunches, through her many lives.
And it’s so easy to chew! Er, read – it’s so easy to read!
First of all, the plot (reliving the same life, over and over, but tweaking it each time) is a lay-up of a plot. It would be difficult to write a book with this premise that wasn’t eminently readable, in my opinion. The interesting-ness is built-in: who doesn’t want to get a practice run at their own lives? The idea is irresistible to anyone who has ever regretted anything.
And the setting: World War II. Another slow pitch right over the plate. Maybe, one day, World War II will stop being an interesting fictional backdrop, but that day is nowhere in sight. World War II offers so many opportunities for novelists that it must be difficult to choose; Atkinson solves this problem by refusing to choose and writing all the plots. Ursula will pull bodies out of bombed out buildings, make friends with Eva Braun, marry a Nazi. She will even kill Hitler in one of her timelines (seriously).
All the elements are in place for an absolute tear-through of a book; all Atkinson needed to do was write well. And, luckily, Atkinson is a master of chewable prose.
Easy-to-read is a distinct quality that writing can have. In my opinion, it’s totally orthogonal to the goodness or badness of the prose itself: there is really good writing that is very easy to read, and really good writing that is very difficult to read. Some prose just works with you: it flows the way your brain flows; it doesn’t make you work. Sometimes, this is a lazy quality, but not in Atkinson’s case.
Kate Atkinson seems, from the two books I’ve read, an excellent writer of easy, vivid prose. She blends several qualities together into a well-balanced mixture. She is colorful, but she doesn’t over-burden her prose with description. She is funny, but she doesn’t tell jokes. She is casual without being too demotic (her language is realistic while remaining universal, no dialect for her). Her vocabulary is massive, but she almost never uses obscure or overly-difficult words. She’s a really good prose stylist, in my opinion (rather in the mode of J.K. Rowling).
Let me see if I can give you a sense of what I mean:
“Although, of course, neither Bridget nor Mrs. Glover had been invited to the Berkeley, and indeed Bridget had never been inside a London hotel, or a hotel anywhere come to that, apart from having gone into the Shelbourne to admire the foyer before catching the ferry at Dun Laoghire to come to England, “a lifetime ago.” Mrs. Glover, on the other hand, declared herself to be “quite familiar” with the Midland in Manchester where one of her nephews (of which, it seemed, she had an endless supply) had taken her and her sister “on more than one occasion.” (p. 175)
“He had asked her to meet him for a drink, a request conveyed on an Admiralty docket that had arrived mysteriously while she was briefly out of the office…’I think your department may be due an audit’, it read. Crighton liked code. Ursula hoped that the navy’s encryptions weren’t as rudimentary as Crighton’s.
Miss Fawcett, one of her clerical assistants, spotted the note lying in full view and gave her a panic-stricken look. “Crikey,”, she said. “Are we? Due an audit?”
“Someone’s idea of a joke,” Ursula said, dismayed to find herself blushing. There was something un-Crighton-like about these salacious (if not downright filthy) but seemingly innocent messages. ‘I believe there is a shortage of pencils.’ Or ‘Are your ink levels sufficiently topped up?’ Ursula wished he would learn Pitman’s, or more discretion. Or, better still, stop altogether.” (p. 295)
Ignore the light-heartedness; this is really good prose. It is information-dense without in any way sacrificing clarity. Each sentence is instantly and totally comprehensible. There isn’t a word out of place. Usually, writing with this much complexity gets quickly bogged down in extra adjectives, too many phrases. There’s none of that here; Atkinson has put every word exactly where she needs it, and has nothing leftover. Lastly, notice the diversity in the vocabulary. Most writers are repetitive: they have favorite words and phrases which they repeat over and over. Atkinson does not – her working vocabulary (as well as her set of cultural touch points and allusions) is vast.
‘Life After Life’ left me with the distinct impression that I had read something fun rather than something good. It was a romp of a read, engaging and easy to follow, sad sometimes and funny sometimes and suspenseful sometimes.
It’s not a bad thing, having a nice reading experience! Nevertheless, I am left with the feeling that I had just read a 500-page novel without having to strain even the tiniest bit. It’s the feeling that you have after phoning in a work-out: technically, you did the exercises, but you didn’t need to stretch a single muscle. Maybe you enjoyed it, but you didn’t improve.
And, OK, not all reading experiences need be opportunities for betterment, I understand that. Sometimes books are just fun and that’s great. In Atkinson’s case, though, it makes me a tad uneasy because she is such a good technical writer. And maybe that’s unfair – isn’t her lovely and enjoyable prose enough? But I have a feeling that, if she pushed, she could write something lovely and hard. Something really magnificent.