Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kate Atkinson, writer of astonishing range and virtuosity

Image from The Quirky Bookworm

Kate Atkinson's historical novel, Life after Life, is told with artistry and vision. Skipping back and forth across the twentieth century, the author invents various lives for Ursula Todd, a British child born to a privileged country family on the eve of WWI.

Each of Ursula's completely absorbing and believable hinge moments has profound implications for her future life. Is she raped on her sixteenth birthday by a brutish friend of her unsavoury elder brother, or does she fight him off?

Does she appear when her brother Teddy's darling Nancy needs her most, or does she miss the chance of being at the right place at the right time? Does she marry and stay on in Germany after she visits a friend in Berlin in 1933?

Does she work at the War Office? Volunteer for the Home guard? Does she allow the temporary consolation of alcohol to lead her down a destructive life path? Does she enter into an ill-advised and disastrous marriage to the brutish man who picks her up when she falls down in the street?

And so on. Each of these questions is answered variously by the author, who thus reveals the impact on our lives of small moments of choice and chance that take us along one path even as they completely obscure other possibilities from view.

Started Early, Took my Dog is equally brilliant in an entirely different way. With ironic nods to the crime and mystery genre, this book astounds with its two plots, both involving ex-peace officers unable to find personal peace in their lives. Tracy Waterhouse and Jackson Brodie both show their compassion for the underdog (in one case literally) by serious post-retirement breaches of the law they once upheld.

There is a poetic symmetry to the parallel plots, and a true inevitability about how these two stories interact.

Kate Atkinson is one of those writers whose every work I will be seeking out to read, confident that the experience will be full of wonderful exotic surprises. Paradoxically, at the same time these novels hold profound echoes with real life.

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