On the Shelf: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

lifeKate Atkinson is as precious to me as my first author-love Charlotte Brontë. Atkinson’s novels, like Brontë‘s, tremble with wit, comfort, and significance. She writes the words at the tip of your tongue with clarity and logic, achieving that incalculable balance of beauty and blood in the process.You become dizzy with the loveliness of her shapely scenes but aren’t allowed to be oblivious to the strong undercurrents of disaster.

I first discovered Kate Atkinson in Bristol–in a “Space and Place” class taught by Professor Ralph Pite. We read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and I was utterly absorbed by the feisty narrator and the novel’s hurtfully honest portrayal of family. Next I discovered Jackson Brodie and the magical combination of Atkinson’s prose in mystery form. Yet none of this reading prepared me for the force of her newest novel.

 Life After Life is spun with gold. If you read anything this year, Life After Life must be it. The story-or stories- of Ursula Todd is utterly compelling and lingers with depth and spirit long after you close the cover. The Todd family is as real as your own flesh and blood and you can’t help but absorb their joy, their loss and their tremendous fragility.

In a nutshell, it’s Ursula’s brother who expresses the hope (purpose/beauty/tragedy) of the novel:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally got it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

The wholly lovable Ursula Todd is given the chance to do just this. As she dies and returns to us throughout the novel-set before and after the second world war-we become intimately aware of the infinite value of a single life. Not only is the novel a powerful encapsulation of English identity  in the midst of ‘the war to end all wars,’ but it answers the question we so often ask ourselves–“What If?”

If you pay any attention to book awards and bestsellers, you’ve heard about Life After Life, and I don’t need to say much more. But this is, hands down, the sweetest novel I’ve read in years and one which I know will bring you joy.


On the Shelf: Therese Anne Fowler’s ‘Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald’

zFor me, one of the best things about Mexico was having time to read and while I didn’t exactly get through the ambitious seven novels I brought, I did manage to read a couple. Among them was Therese Anne Fowler’s singular first novel Z.

Prior to discovering the novel, I had a vague idea of the glamorous literary lives of the Fitzgeralds, but an even more evasive notion of Zelda. Fowler’s compulsively readable Z brought her to life in vivid color. From her first meeting with Scott in 1918 at a country club dance to the dizzying years of their marriage lived in New York, Paris and Hollywood, Fowler captured the intense emotion, the magic,  and the cracks of discontent wholly and lovingly.

Fowler did a great array of research to bring Zelda’s blurred life into focus, and even though this is a work of fiction, I was struck again and again by the logic and coherence.  The connective tissues Fowler weaves through the often disjointed lives of Scott and Zelda seem so likely that it’s easy to forgets this is fiction. Or is it? In the novel’s afterward Fowler mentions uncanny “coincidences.” Much of Z was published on the same dates as The Great Gatsby, among other unusual occurrences.

Above all, Z is a beautifully rendered memoir-like novel brimming with insight, wit and authenticity. It’s for those of us who are curious, who want to know the inside story not for the gossip, but in order to really ‘get’ someone. You laugh and ache with Zelda, but above all, you cheer her on.