Wednesday, May 18, 2016

the many lives of ursula todd

How to describe Life after Life a novel written by Kate Atkinson?

Well, it is very well written, and you have to wonder--at least I did--about how someone could have even conceived of the story.  The author's command of language is impressive--not just English--as there are passages in French and German (not translated by the way for we philistine readers).  I have a decent vocabulary but would have had to stop every five pages to look up the meanings of words if I stopped every time I did not know a word's definition.   And the novel is beyond ambitious. Just stunning in its range and a brilliant example of how to describe characters multi dimensionally.

 But I cannot recommend this book.  It is just too wild.

The book is about Ursula Todd born on February 11, 1910.  It takes place in 1910, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923, 1926, 1930, 1941, 1943, 1945, and in 1967--but not sequentially.  And not always the same time in the various years.  There is a February, May, and August 1926 entry.  You can be in 1930 and then back in 1910, and 1926 with a rapist named Howie, and then in 1930 --there never was a Howie.

Ursula lives several lives. She is raped at 16 and is impregnated, but then she is a virgin later in life, she marries a crazy man named Oliphant who claims to be writing a book which he is not, but then Ursula later in life is a woman who has never married.  She is an acquaintance of Eva Braun and meets Hitler in the late 30s, but we find out early on that she has murdered a Nazi in 1930 who appears later with Ursula in the late 30s.

I guess the point is that we can veer one way or the other depending on fate and choices we take and if that happened we would have different lives.  For a long time while reading I would go back in the book to find out which life was happening at a particular point, but after a while I just gave up.  It was not that important to me to know which life she was in.  Also, the not infrequent passages and sentences in German and French while impressive, assumes a readership that is unlikely.  Maybe all readers should be multilingual, and I know smatterings of a few languages, but I am not fluent in all languages if any.  Another problem with the book was that much too much time was spent dealing with the post bombings during the blitz in the early forties.

I'd read a mystery by Atkinson previously and will read another of her mysteries--and maybe another book, but this one just was not worth the time taken to read a long book that essentially argues a simple point: events can alter our courses.

On the positive side, some of the characters are so well depicted.  Ursula's Aunt Izzy is almost worth reading the book to get to know. Also Ursula's sister Pammy and obnoxious brother Maurice.  Her mother Sylvie and Dad Hugh are multidimensional and so well described. The section with Oliphant was difficult to read because it was such a smack on depiction of a tyrannical husband and how bastards like that could subjugate their kind spouses.

So--many good things, but it is too all over the place.  I am not an ignoramus because I did not get it. I think I got it, and am appreciative of the author's ambition and skill.  I will think about Ursula and her dealings with Howie, Eva, Hitler himself, and Izzy.  But the book's many switchbacks diluted its value from my perspective.

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