Tuesday 15 April 2014

Premonitory Reminiscences

Summer reading...

I have just finished Kate Atkinson's Life after life (2013, now in paperback) which I strongly recommend.

It is the story of Ursula Todd who is born in 1910 and goes on to live through the Second World War and beyond. Or not. Because the novel keeps restarting and her life in some instances ends immediately, strangled by her umbilical cord, and otherwise ends at different times and following a variety of experiences.

In one life she even kills Hitler in 1930 because she has premonitions of his later activities based on her alternative lives (I'm not spoiling the plot for you because this scene actually starts the book).

Cripes, I hear you say, this sounds like one of those experimental novels which endlessly confuses the reader or else yet another example of "magical realism" of which there have been far too many since about 1990.

I suppose both are true, but the book is astounding in capturing so accurately the lives and mores of the upper middle classes in the 20th century, the echoes of which are still with us today. And its playing with the heroine's alternative lives is devilishly dark and at the same time moving. Somehow the moral worth of mankind transcends fate.

Heady stuff, up there with the great modern American writers who are superior to ours (but she's from Yorkshire). And it's a very long book too: it should carry you comfortably through several days of wind and rain this August in Aberdovey or other resort of your choice.

There is also a mental health angle which is interesting. Not surprisingly Ursula's mum and dad are worried about her mental health because of her "premonitory reminiscences" (my coinage but you see what I mean) - and it seems possible to the reader that the reason for her sense of déjà vu is in fact a mental aberration of some kind.

So her parents take her to a psychiatrist who makes a stab at understanding the girl but never really gets anywhere, being more interested in his own theories and his sad obsession with a son who died in the Great War. Typically the small part played by the psychiatrist in the book is nevertheless no cameo but a very human and deep character.

Kate Atkinson: she studied American literature for her doctorate - it shows