I think I am not the only person to be surprised that Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life after Life is not on the Man Booker Longlist. I would need to check, has she ever been on a longlist? If not – why not? Ever since her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum was published she has consistently produced first class novels, stories that have a singularity that makes each one a delight and also a new discovery. Some authors write the same sort of book each time, this is not a snide remark it is merely an observation, but Kate Atkinson writes a different book each time and the new one is, in my view, one of the best.
The principal character, Ursula, starts as a new born baby, she is born in February 1910 on a snowy night, the midwife is stuck somewhere (actually an inn) and Dr Fellowes is on his way, but slowly; thus in the first chapter of section two Bridget is alone with the mother Sylvie, the baby arrives choked by the cord around its neck and fails to breathe. But immediately we start again, the Doctor arrives just in time to cut the cord and the baby lives to be christened: Ursula. Right at the end of the book we revisit this scene and this time Sylvie arouses herself enough to get Bridget to find some handy surgical scissors in a drawer, so she cuts the cord and the baby lives.
This continues throughout the book. Death, though never actually named comes in the form of a dark bat, darkness, falling but never actually death, and Ursula gets to live again a different life, but always even as a child with a nagging sense of déjà vu. Each manifestation follows her through to its conclusion and then darkness falls…
This is either a profound meditation on dying and on reincarnation, though not in the Hindu/Buddhist sense for Ursula comes back each time as Ursula and gets to relive her own life but differently, or simply a rattlingly good story. The magic lies in the characterisation of this girl as she develops into a young woman; some of the awful things that happen to her are balanced by better or worse luck next time. Her character and that of her mother, brothers, her Aunt Izzie and her friends remain consistent, and each new manifestation recalibrates them to the new situation without actually altering their nature. It is quite brilliant.
Kate Atkinson writes with a quiet precision, her pen is scalpel sharp and her characters are fully rounded. This story takes us from 1910 all the way through the Second World War to its end and slightly beyond; Ursula is variously married, single, a mother, a spinster; she lives in London, Germany, visits Italy and France; survives and does not survive the Blitz and all of it is well researched; accurate and sometimes devastatingly sad and at other times gently contented and yet…sometimes, just every now and then, the curtain parts and Ursula gets another moment, she sees beyond the ‘now’ into the past or future, it is very unnerving.
The main thread that we follow through the character, Pari, in the second book, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, also has a sense of the past seeping into the present. Pari and her elder brother Abdullah live in Afghanistan in a small village called Shadbagh. They are dirt poor, Pari’s birth ended her mother’s life and the two children now have a stepmother Parvana. She continues to have children, so her brother, Uncle Nabi seeks a way to relieve his new brother-in-law of his financial embarrassment. He works with a wealthy, but childless, couple Mr and Mrs Wahdati in Kabul and his solution impacts on Abdullah and Pari with heart-breaking suddenness…it takes the whole of the rest of the novel to reach a resolution of a kind.
Khaled Hosseini writes about Afghanistan in such a way that one really longs to go there, place is as much a character in his books as the story; the crowded bazaars, the dusty adobe villages, the heat and the mountains and the stories. And the Mountains Echoed starts with the father telling his children a story, full of divs and jinns. The father in the story has many children, but of them all the youngest, little Qais is the favourite but of course that is the very child that the bad div wishes to take with him to the mountain; and in order to save the rest of his children, the father has to sacrifice one. And we have no idea what is coming…but by the end of the next chapter we know exactly why this was the story for that night.
All the characters have a back story which we get to understand: Parwana’s is gut-wrenching and once we discover it, so is Mrs Wahdati’s. So like the unwrapping of a weighty parcel, we find layer upon layer of truth, half-truth and downright falsehood. Hosseini uses the device of a long letter from Uncle Nabi to a Mr Markos to help us follow the rest of the narrative, times have changed and a Cypriot surgeon has come to Afghanistan to live in the Wahdati house; they have both departed and Uncle Nabi, the faithful cook/chauffeur has been left the house in its entirety…
I unreservedly recommend both these books, and all the others by both these authors if you haven’t already discovered them.