Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


August 3, 2013

It’s a funny thing about novels.  They sweep you into their worlds so that you forget you’re reading something that came out of the author’s imagination.  If it’s a really good book you are part of it, inside it with the characters that the author has created.

Kate Atkinson, author of One Good Turn (reviewed on this blog), has a new best-seller, Life After Life It’s a fabulous book, not a mystery but a tour de force about the many lives of Ursula Beresford Todd.  Ursula was born in England in 1910, the third of five children of Silvie and Hugh Todd.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and she never drew a breath.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, but the doctor was able to cut it off and she lived.

She was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, and her mother cut it off because the doctor hadn’t been able to arrive in time for the birth.

Do you see a problem here?

Life After Life tells the many (possible) stories of Ursula’s life, assuming that she didn’t die at birth.  She never marries, she marries an abuser, she goes to Germany and marries a Nazi officer, she doesn’t have children, she has a daughter.  It all gets a bit confusing.

The stories of Ursula’s life are engrossing and wonderfully told.  She’s a young child during the Great War and a grown woman, married/unmarried, in England/Germany during World War II.  There are episodes that made me gasp with surprise or dread or sorrow.  But then I would remind myself that none of this happened because on the previous pages something totally different had occurred.

When a reader enters the mind of a novelist, of course there’s a suspension of belief.  We know these things haven’t really happened, we know that it’s all made up and that the author can make anything happen the way she/he wants.  But, at least for me, all the different paths of Ursula’s life kept me at a distance.  I kept reminding myself that because all these things couldn’t have happened to Ursula, none of these things did.

It would be like reading a mystery and finding out that the crime wasn’t solved, as if the author laid out all the clues and left it up to the reader to figure out who did it.  If there are any mysteries like that out there, I don’t want to know about them or read them.  There’s a contract between an author and a reader–the author writes a complete story and the reader gives it his/her complete attention and (hopefully) belief.  If the author doesn’t fulfill the first part of the contract, the reader can’t be faulted for not fulfilling the second part.

All the statements on the cover of Life After Life are true:  “Extraordinary,” “Excellent,” and “Smart, Moving, Powerful” are just some of them.  Life After Life was on the best-seller list for months, deservedly so.  But for me, and perhaps only for me, because of the many narrative paths in this book, a little of the magic of entering the writer’s make-believe world was gone.


Leave a Reply