Cecilia Grayson

‘Life after Life’, by Kate Atkinson - review

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Life after Life

Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, pp. 480, £

Das also war des Pudels Kern!

Everybody thought, ‘Oh, Groundhog Day,’ but they were wrong. Not that the pest-control man couldn’t have coped with a few marmots — he’d seen worse in his time.

He’d been summoned because of an infestation of black bats.

*

Meriel’s confusion lay in the fact that she knew she had known a lot, yet suspected she also knew nothing. Her family couldn’t help with the contradictions surrounding her birth, nor with her multiple deaths. ‘It’s just déjà vu,’ her mother Emily said, or was it déjà lu?

She hopped about from year to year, forwards and backwards (if only she’d keep still, the reader thought), gathering redundant adjectives. Her mother was always there, dwelling on her own childhood (cottage, puppy, God).

After somehow surviving the Great War, Meriel had an astonishing number of experiences, which passed into the future with extraordinary speed, leaving Muriel surprisingly brave.

What unsettled her was marriage to a complete nutter (Meriel didn’t mind too much about anachronistic language), but this was soon swept away by the Blitz. Each time she expected to die after an air raid, the rustic features of the pest-control man emerged through the smoky air. ‘Bloody black bats!’ he’d seethe.

*

Meriel’s life continued to pirouette, plummet, prance and plunge back and forth across dates, leaving readers scrabbling at the pages, thanking heaven they weren’t reading on a Kindle.

*

The second world war elicited some trenchant comments from Meriel’s sister Lucy on the dangerous madness of the Nazi party. Safely in rural England, she had the distance to perceive the truth, while Isabelle was spending time with Adolf and Eva, surrounded by untranslated fragments of German. She could not see the wood for the trees.

As she wondered how her family would react to the Führer, the pest-control man’s ruddy face swam into her field of vision over a plate of Kirschtorte.

*

Meriel was trawling the depths of life: disease, cruelty (physical and mental), rape, alcoholism, and ghastly déjà vu grated their way across her surprisingly resilient soul. Diversion in her existence was provided by her naughty and raffish Aunt Snazzie, who lived at a dizzying number of addresses in London and spoke an upper-class 1920s English refreshingly free of challenging anachronisms.

Meriel was in two places at once during the war, revisiting old clichés about violence, death, heroism and human nature. Thank goodness there was Lucy to keep her sane.

Meriel had tried out everything and perhaps the attempt and not the deed confounded her. Stories wheeled and spun, siblings were lost and bounced back and pets endured contradictory fates. When all seemed terribly confused, she longed to be put in a Jackson Brodie novel.

Sometimes Meriel wondered whether she’d lived her life (lives?) too briskly, too much in a hurry. The final chapters revealed information on her early years. Appalled, she realised this could lead to terrible confusion. Was she looking back at her life, or was life looking back at her? Was her life but a walking shadow? Had all the black bats gone at last?

She wondered if she were guilty of cruelty to the reader.