Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Click Here to Buy A Book Now via BookDepository

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Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner Announced

CIMG4526Excellent timing, the women’s prize for fiction is announced during the London Literature Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, which I had the opportunity to visit on Saturday (more on that excitement later!).

A strong list, and some equally strong and divided opinions about the books that made the list and a bit of a surprise result, it has to be said.

So to remind you, the six shortlisted authors and their books were:

*

In the opinion of the judges the book chosen mostly ably fulfilled the criteria of the award, being originality, accessibility and excellence.

And the winner was:

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

A first book award for her 10th book, a career spanning 25 years and a dream fulfilled at last. The author paid tribute to her father who sadly passed away a month ago, knowing that his daughter had made the short list and also to her grandmother who lent her the money for her first typewriter and made sure she paid it back.

“… this book really struck all the judges, partly because of just the pure quality of its writing, it has this incredible energy, at times its very vicious and very bleak, but it also has this warmth that comes through at the ending… it is one of those books that speaks to people in different ways and really is something that begins conversations and begins thoughts…” Natasha Walter, Judge

The new sponsor has also been announced and there was plenty of the beige drink being served from all accounts, so from next year expect to hear about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Well done AM Homes, up against strong contenders, including the almost invincible Hilary Mantel.

Let’s hope that it’s a good omen for her publisher Granta, after the rapid departure of most of their management team, the publisher/magazine currently having to rebuild itself from scratch.

Looks like I have yet another book to add to the list!

Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour (2)Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behaviour started off for me with a sense of déjà vu. There is something about the young character walking up into the forest, the sense that it may be a life changing moment, that evoked a memory of her earlier novel Prodigal Summer. There is something similar between the character of Dellarobia, a young mother of two children, and Deanna, the older wildlife biologist living in the forest, keeping an eye on the threatened coyote species.

Rereading the first line of my review of Prodigal Summer, the connection is obvious:

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer.

caterpillar-emergingHer latest story tracks another of nature’s creatures whose pattern of migration has changed, attracting scientists, environmentalists and believers. The events of this winter period coincide with Dellarobia’s realisation of what lies beneath her inclination to engage in behaviour likely to destroy her family. She is given the opportunity to work with the scientists and comes to understand that there is an alternative path to changing her life, one that will cause less suffering than the impulsive gesture she was intent on in the first pages.

Flight Behaviour also reminded me a little of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, they are both works of literary scientific fiction, stories that follow a particular ‘what if’ scenario. Kingsolver starts with the facts and then creates a hypothetical scenario, which science is trying to prove is related to climate change.

Just as history is sometimes more appealing to absorb through a well-researched historical novel, so too are certain scientific suppositions. And then there are the reactions of the population and how they sort themselves into like-minded categories, less about the science and more about community, faith, belonging and the short-term survival of families whose basic living may be at odds with the conservation of another of nature’s species.

Kingsolver looks at what motivates humanity to take positions against each other, the tendency to seek only those positions that support their belief system or corporate sponsor, regardless of evidence to the contrary, the challenges of the outsider and the blind acceptance of those who accept their lot without question, living in the present on account of mistakes they’ve made in the past.

coyote runningAn enjoyable novel, though slow going for me, there was something about Prodigal Summer that was urgent and compelling, while this book meandered; comparing the experience of these two books is a little like a reflection of the speed of the creatures in their midst.

Flight Behaviour has been short listed in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013, Barbara Kingsolver was a recent winner of the prize in 2010 for her excellent novel The Lacuna, one of the first novels reviewed here on Word by Word.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist & Pulitzer Prize 2013

Womens prize logoThe long-list becomes the short-list and it looks like a strong line-up for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Here is the short list:

Kate Atkinson Life After Life – my review here

A M Homes May We Be Forgiven

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies

Maria Semple Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Zadie Smith NW – my review here

Flight Behaviour (2) NW life after life

Here’s what Miranda Johnson, Chair of the Judges had to say:

‘The task of reducing the list of submissions from over 140 to just 20 books was always going to be daunting, but this year’s infinite variety has made the task even trickier. The list we have ended up with is, we believe, truly representative of that diversity of style, content and provenance, and contains those works which genuinely inspired the most excitement and passion amongst the judges. I don’t anticipate the job becoming easier at the next stage!’

I have managed to read two that made it through, plus others from the long list including Honour, Ignorance and The Light Between Oceans. I am currently slow-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, she won the prize in 2010 with The Lacuna, one of the first books I reviewed here. Zadie Smith is also a previous winner, her book On Beauty won in 2006.

I was sure that Atkinson and Smith would make the list, not only because the stories are engaging, but because they dare to step outside the ordinary and test the boundaries of convention, Life After Life likely to be a more popular read, but both deserving their place here.

I know many will be surprised yet delighted to see Maria Semple’s Where’s You Go Bernadette on the list and of course the inevitable Hilary Mantel, no surprise there. Will anyone be able to knock her off her current perch I wonder?

The winner will be announced at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 5 June.

The Guardian – Women’s prize for fiction reveals ‘staggeringly strong’ shortlist

Pulitzer Prizepulitzer

Amid the terrible news that saddened and horrified us all in Boston yesterday, a day that should have been cause for calm celebration, the annual Pulitzer Prizes for 2013 were quietly announced.

The Snow Child was one of the three finalists for the fiction prize, the winner was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, a timely journey in the heart of North Korea.

It was good to see a non-fiction title I enjoyed and recommended last year Tom Reiss’s Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo win the biography prize. My review here.

Ignorance

It was the book I read following Michéle Robert’s novel Ignorance that gave me something to reflect on regarding the meaning of that loaded word she uses as her title.

In Maya Angelou’s latest autobiography Mom & Me & Mom (review pending), she speaks of ignorance and quotes her mother:

She said, “Ignorance is a terrible thing. It causes families to lose their centre and causes people to lose their control. Ignorance knows no binds. Old people, young people, middle-aged, black, white can all be ignorant .

An apt epigram for this war-time novel set in occupied France.

IgnoranceTwo young girls from a rural village are sent briefly to live in a local convent, Marie Angèle because her mother is about to have a baby and Jeanne, because her mother is unwell and in hospital. Marie Angle is the daughter of local middle class grocers, Catholic and raised with something of a sense of entitlement and superiority over her lesser friend Jeanne, whose mother, a widow converted to Catholicism when she married, but lives in a community that rarely allows her to forget her Jewish past. Marie Angèle expects to inherit half of her parent’s shop, she expects that the well-connected young Maurice, the man who can obtain anything during wartime will do the right thing by her.

I could hide my ignorance most of the time, because if he felt like talking he just wanted me to listen. One day, however, parked in the woods, he said : talk to me….I left Jeanne out of these tales. We’d been thrown together as children, purely by accident, we’d had a sort of friendship for a certain time, but we couldn’t mix now. I preferred to concentrate on positive things. That was how we were getting through the war.

Jeanne rarely thinks of her friend, she knows she is loved by her mother, observes their second class status in the way the nuns treat her compared to her friend, their quickness to judge and to listen to gossip as if it were fact. She is not ignorant of the activities that take place in the house where she works, but she like her mother is realistic about her opportunities, she doesn’t allow herself willingly to be taken advantage of, she learns from her past, though it will be insufficient to save her from the consequences of the misguided morals of her childhood friend.

Marie Angèle however, believes  that Jeanne, by working in such an establishment has thus become one of them, a common tart, she believes the village gossip, judges her former friend’s improved dress and appearance.  She portrays her own husband as a man unrecognisable as the same man Jeanne describes as one of the clients of that establishment. Even when confronted with an inkling of this truth, the wife’s inclination is not to question her husband, but to seek revenge against the bearer of the message, a penance that will continue to be paid into the next generation, as Marie Angèle manipulates control of Jeanne’s daughter Andrée and both their futures.

Womens prize logoThe novel is split into sections which view life in overlapping time periods from the perspectives of the two girls which couldn’t be more different, in particular on the part of Marie Angèle concerning not just her friend, but the plight of other families that must go into hiding. Towards the end there is also a section given to Andrée, Jeanne’s daughter and another from Dolly, one of the nuns, complicit in an act of betrayal.

The simple narrative structure exposes the ruinous attitudes, religious hypocrisy and shamelessly uninformed  morality of the ignorant and how it continues to be perpetuated by gossip, fed by jealousy and fueled by ill intention. It reveals that destructive instinct humanity sometimes imposes on the weak and those who are different from the rest. Devastating.

Ignorance is on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. The short list will be announced on April 16. Will this title be on it I wonder?

Note:  This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

NW, life’s passage via the Kilburn High Road

The back cover of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, recently long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 mentions This Is The Story Of A City, the north-west corner of city, however that’s not how I think of it. London is something else, as is The City of London.

NW is a community, a fluid changing community, one of London’s many pulses; for some it is a stepping stone to the next stage, for others it is home. It has been a thoroughfare into London since the days of the Romans and in more recent times, the resting place for Irish immigrants fleeing their country for one reason or another, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. And following the Irish are the many other groups who found NW their starting point to a life in London, that city of promise and unending challenge. NW is the same, the faces that pass through it, indicative of the era we are living within.

NWNW the novel is experimental, its structure changes with each section and after starting the second part which focuses on Felix, I realised that the narrative voice was being used as a metaphor for the state of mind of the character, a brave step or a risk on the authors part by commencing with Leah, who thoughts are all over the place and is suffering from that anxiety of a young, married woman with a successful career and a husband who loves her, who doesn’t understand why she is not content, or why she can’t admit that she isn’t ready to start a family.

So we start with the staccato stream of conscious thoughts of a woman who would benefit from therapy and/or meditation to still that rampant inner chatter, planting the reader in the midst of prose that is challenging for some and uneasy for those listening to the audio version. Not when chapter 7 is shaped like a tree, though that is one of the least challenging pages, one of beauty in fact.

But once we get to Felix’s section, things calm down, Felix’s major life troubles are behind him, the reading is easy and the pace picks up.  Although he’s not entirely immune to temptation, he seems to have moved on from his more despondent days, he’s been clean for 2 years and plans to stay that way. To me, he is the only character who shows real signs of moving on, however he has not moved out of NW,  his mistake perhaps is in staying and trying to convert those around him.

The other female character Keisha, changes her name to Natalie when she becomes a lawyer, an attempt to outgrow her past; she marries and has two children. She and Leah have been friends since their school days and their connection provides the one strong thread throughout the novel. Natalie, like Leah has risen above her past, but can’t seem to resist undermining it, with her strange behaviour, in what was for me, one of the least believable parts of the novel, in part because the author keeps us from knowing exactly what Natalie is up to online and offline, before she gets caught and flips out. I was hoping she might be more influenced by the role model of  Theodora Lewis-Lane, who tries to advise her.

“The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.”  She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”

NW6For me personally, it was in part a nostalgic read, Zadie Smith’s writing comes alive when she evokes place and it is a neighbourhood I lived in and around for many years, NW is the most complete and yet complex character of all, embracing so much diversity, inviting everyone in without prejudice and yet claiming some in the harshest terms possible. There are as many reasons to hate it as there are to love it and anyone who has lived there will likely never forget it.

NW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine. Those who focus on the uniqueness of the writing or who have some experience of /interest in these communities may enjoy it, while those looking for the traditional transformation of character, or any kind of escape may be disappointed.

Despondency is the norm and we will not be rescued from it, it merely lessens with time if we survive.

Life after Life after Life…

It was suggested to Kate Atkinson, that the above might be a more apt title for her book, as the lives relived by the protagonist Ursula in Life After Life are many. In this book, the author has written something unlike anything that precedes it, a return perhaps to the kind of books she was writing before she started on her crime series featuring the fictional detective Jackson Brodie.

life after lifeLife After Life presents numerous versions of Ursula’s life story, a life whose course sometimes changes when her response to an event or an encounter is different to how she responded previously. It is not a conscious change, although she does possess a sense of déjà vu at times, however she is more propelled by instinct than any knowledge of having already lived, or perhaps she is responding to the ever strengthening morphic fields (see link below), that ability to tap into our own and the collective consciousness of remembered events, that link across time between the past and the present, which inevitably become stronger in someone who keeps returning, preparing them for future events.

The story begins (or does it end?) in 1930 before going back to her birth in February 1910. Her earliest lives pass quickly, birth at that time being as traumatic as, if not more difficult to survive than war. When the doctor can make it through the snowstorm and unwrap the umbilical cord from around her neck, she will have a better chance of surviving.

St Paul's during the Blitz

St Paul’s during the Blitz

Ursula’s story for its many stops when darkness falls and restarts, takes place predominantly between 1910 and 1941 in England and Germany, with much of the narration taking place during the war, in particular the 57 consecutive nights of bombardment in London from September 1940, “the blitz”, when more than one million homes were destroyed and over 40,000 civilians killed with many more injured.

There are significant turning points in her adolescence connected with the lecherous friend of her brother and a passing stranger with insidious intent, otherwise she makes it to an independent life in London during the second world war in scenes that Atkinson brings alive in unimaginable ways, a city where nowhere is safe from the nightly bombs that will fall, their paths of destruction unpredictable, those who survive, forever changed by that traumatic experience.

WWII_London_Blitz_East_LondonIn the same way that one never knows which choices will lead to life and which to certain death as bombs rain down on London, so too as readers, do we turn each page with similar trepidation, never quite sure when darkness may fall again and our story begin over. Unpredictable, because subsequent experiences don’t necessarily guarantee a longer life, Life After Life has a simple structure, yet leaves the reader aware of the countless possibilities that could manifest.

The BBC interviewer asked a question I had been pondering, suggesting that for a writer, there are numerous outcomes possible when plotting a story and in a sense this book is like stringing together several drafts, however Atkinson says that although you could consider it like that, it is not her method to write like that, it seems that she set out with this structure in mind, that she always knew how it was going to end, although I am unsure whether this story can ever end, you can see how it might go on forever.

BlitzaftermathThe appeal of the story for me is intricately tied to that structure and in fact I find it hard to think only about the story itself, which begs the question, which version of the story is the story? This is not a typical tale of transformation of a protagonist, while we recognise Ursula’s character in the many lives she lives, the story shows just how different our lives could become, based on even insignificant choices we make as well as the random events that can interrupt that path and change its course indelibly.

Life After Life is also a turning point for Kate Atkinson who says she won’t be writing another Jackson Brodie novel for a very long time, having felt some relief at being set free from the intricate plotting involved in crime writing and enjoyed getting back to just writing. She mentioned two possibilities for her next novel, either a companion novel to this one about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, called A God in Ruins, or an homage to Agatha Christie, about a group of people stranded in a countryside hotel in a snowstorm during a murder mystery weekend called Death at the Side of the Rook.

It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.

So let’s see how the judges of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 respond, this title having just made the long list.

Additional Resources

Morphic Fields & Morphic Resonance – Rupert Sheldrake interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun Literature Magazine Feb 2013

Interview – Meet the Author – Nick Higham of the BBC speaks to Kate Atkinson.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.