Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kate Atkinson's Cascade of Echoes

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

You set off for a destination to find the way blocked so you return to your starting point and start out once more, following another route, to find that blocked too, leaving you no option but to begin again -- but hardly have you gone some distance than you’re forced to return and start over again until you get it right. This sounds like a recipe for frustration, yet it’s the bare-bones structure that Kate Atkinson uses with considerable success in her new novel, Life after Life. As a character says, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right?” Her earlier novels have unusual structures too; this one is the most daring of the lot.

How one chooses to start a story and the order in which events unfold has always been of importance. As Graham Greene writes in The End of the Affair, to signal that novel’s unconventional structure:  “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Many novels start in medias res: as close to the action as possible, shading in background as they go along. This creates the satisfying feeling of plunging into the heart of things and filling in the blanks as one reads.

It’s a tricky business: a structure that calls attention to itself should do so because it's a natural fit for the subject, and not as a gimmick. For the Modernists, playing with structure was a way of depicting what was for them a new and fractured reality.  Joyce, in an obvious example, tried to impart a mythic dimension to the events of a dreary Dublin day by mapping them on to the incidents of the Odyssey. More recently, in Time’s Arrow Martin Amis explored predestination and culpability in the life of his Nazi war criminal protagonist by telling the story of his life in reverse order.

In film, Christopher Nolan’s Memento famously also presented events backwards as a way of depicting the experience of short-term amnesia; another obvious example would be Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with its alternative versions exploring the nature of truth and subjectivity. It’s the fit between structure and subject that makes these examples spring to mind.

The film that Atkinson’s Life after Life has inevitably been compared to is Groundhog Day, in which the character played by Bill Murray repeats the events of a single day over and over until he learns his lessons and gets it right. Life after Life, however, treads its own path. It deals with the continuing saga of Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910, who lives several lives in order for her to fulfill her purpose. To begin with, an errant umbilical cord prevents her from being born. In other versions, she lives longer, but dies young nevertheless, of influenza and then by drowning. In yet other versions, she lives on but her life is cut short by events such as the London Blitz or a battering by a brutish husband. “Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes,” we’re told at one point, an apt way of putting it. Finally, Ursula leads a life in which she – slightly implausibly -- moves to Germany and, after befriending Eva Braun, shoots none other than Adolf Hitler. History hinges on such vagaries, the author suggests.

If all this makes the novel sound depressing and relentless, I’m doing it a disservice. Atkinson’s prose is wry and delightful throughout, and her eye for period detail and manners during and between the two world wars is acute. She may be accused of over-egging the pudding with many references to what she's doing -- "Practice makes perfect" characters keep repeating -- but the result is undeniably gratifying. Like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino’s novel of first chapters, Life after Life is testimony to how a novel can be made memorable when structure and content fuse together.

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