On the Bookshelf: July 2014

Bit late with this month’s book reviews, but never fear! 

Children, made homeless by bombing raids in East London. The Blitz features strongly in Life After Life. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Children, made homeless by bombing raids in East London. The Blitz features strongly in Life After Life. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Readers who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books. For the uninitiated, these were kids’ stories where the reader was the hero and they decided where the story should go next. So for example, you would come to a fork in the road- picking the left would take you to page 10 where you met a wizard, and the right to page 20 where you would meet a murderer. They were great fun, and they kept popping back into my head as I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. 

Life After Life looks at the moments that shape us, and how the tiniest actions can have shattering consequences. Describing the plot is somewhat difficult, as the main character Ursula Todd lives her life over and over until she ‘gets it right’- or right enough, at least.

The one constant in the story is that Ursula is born on a cold February night in 1910 to a kind-hearted, devoted father- the best male character in the book- and a rather cold mother. She’s the Todds’ third child. Her older brother Maurice is a boor and her older sister Pamela is a constant friend and companion. They dote on their younger brothers- Teddy becomes a flying ace in World War II and one of Ursula’s lives is devoted to saving him. Ursula is seen as a bit strange in all her lives. Prone to deja-vu, she is sent to a proto-child psychologist.

Every time Ursula dies, she finds herself reborn as herself and she gets another chance to get it right. Like the hero in those old kids’ books, if she takes the right hand turn she can find herself in the path of a real-life monster. One of her lives finds her raped on her 16th birthday, almost dying from an illegal abortion and falling into an abusive marriage. It’s one of the darkest lives; another finds her behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany; still another has her die in the Blitz.

Ursula begins to cotton on to what’s happening and how tiny things can change the course of her life. If their Irish maid, Bridget, goes to London with her boyfriend to celebrate the Armistice in 1918, she will bring back the Spanish flu and they will all die. So Ursula must stop Bridget from leaving the village at any cost.

If it all sounds very meta and postmodern, that’s because it is. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be a terrible mess. At the very least, we wouldn’t give a damn about Ursula and her multiple lives, or whether she manages to kill Hitler or not. (The number one rule of time travel of course, is never kill Hitler, no matter how tempting it is. As Terry Pratchett says, “Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot him and there’ll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?”) However Kate Atkinson is a consummate observer of family life and human interaction. Ursula lives again and again but she never fundamentally changes; neither does her family. It’s also leavened by humour and sharp wit.

Atkinson has done her research; the Blitz chapters in particular are so real you can hear the sirens and smell the smoke. Little details are immaculately done; the family cook Mrs Glover’s terrible cuisine does not waver no matter the life Ursula is in; Bridget mentions how she went into the Shelbourne Hotel just to look at the lobby before she caught the boat to England (it remains the fanciest place she’s ever been in); Ursula’s psychologist Dr Kellet has a son called Guy, who may or may not have even existed, depending on the life Ursula’s in.

Our lives hinge on little choices in lots of dramatic ways, and here Atkinson captures the nature of what we cannot predict and control. A must read.

I seem to be picking up non-stop war books these days, and Ira Levin’s classic The Boys From Brazil  looks at the sinister aftermath of World War II. Such was the scale and scope of the Nazi regime and the chaos after its downfall, some of its notorious figures escaped justice. In real life Dr Josef Mengele went to South America and lived out the rest of his days under a false name. Despite being wanted by West Germany, Israel and individual Nazi-hunters, he was never brought to justice.

The idea that men like Mengele lived ordinary lives after committing horrendous crimes is a fascinating one. In The Boys From Brazil, he is unrepentant and there’s a large network of Nazis hoping to create a Fourth Reich. And they have some nefarious plans to do it.

The plot is hokum- possibly because in 2014 we know cloning is a lot harder than it seems, and the remaining Nazis are doddery old men- but Levin was the man who made a woman having the Devil’s kid seem realistic. It’s a taut, unnerving thriller and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a fascination for the lingering legacy of that awful regime.

Stockholm (via Wikimedia Commons)

Stockholm (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, a film adaptation of The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson has just been released. This book features centenarian Allan Karlsson, who instead of going to his 100th birthday party in the nursing home run by the dictatorial Director Alice, climbs out the window and disappears. So begins a wacky adventure, and we learn about Allan’s colourful past on the way.

The book is a bit like a Swedish Forrest Gump. Allan manages to bump into all sorts of historical figures; Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Charles de Gaulle, to name but a few, and inadvertently changes history several times. Allan is not stupid, but he cares not a single jot about politics; he feels that the world would work a lot better if leaders talked things out over several bottles of vodka (he may have a point).

It’s wise to note that the Scandinavians don’t do twee comments about Mama and chocolates.  There’s a lot of humour in the book but it’s as black as a sunless Arctic winter. Allan and his newfound friends accidentally kill people alarmingly often; and one of Allan’s contributions to history was the perfection of the atom bomb (he’s not impressed with how it’s used, mind).

How much you enjoy the book will depend on two things; how much you are willing to suspend disbelief and how dark your sense of humour is. I really enjoyed it, although I found the prose a little clunky at times. Alas, this is often an issue with translated books, and purely my own fault for not having any Swedish.


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