Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

I have just finished Kate Atkinson’s latest book and feel compelled to review it immediately. That’s probably not a good idea because I feel like I am still processing it but I have thoughts and, in the absence of a conveniently located book club that just happen to have also read this book, I figure my book review blog is the best place for me to work through my thoughts and feelings.

The premise of Life after Life is simple: what if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally got it right. This is not a Sliding Doors-type scenario where one simple act – for example catching a train – can be the difference between happiness, life and a fetching new haircut. In this book, the lead character Ursula Beresford Todd, is born, lives, dies, then starts again. It took a while for me to get the hang of what was going on – Ursula had been born and died six times before page 38 – but once I realised that life for Ursula is like a spiral, with each new rotation going for just a little bit longer than the previous, I was able to get into the swing, let go of my narrative readership conventions and go along for the ride.

The book opens in 1910. Ursula is part of a big, boisterous family headed by her parents Sylvie and the much-loved Hugh. A lot of the book is set in their family home, Fox’s Corner, in the English countryside, where she grows up with her three brothers and sister and her wild aunt Izzie dropping in and out. Each of the characters in the book is affected by Ursula’s life trajectory in different ways, which is hard for Ursula because she doesn’t understand why sometimes she gets a strong feeling of dread presentment. So, while she does have the chance to live her life over and over again, she doesn’t know what she’s doing or why she’s doing it.

Kate Atkinson writes really well and I think captures family, particularly sibling, dynamics really well. The novel deals with issue of class, privilege and gender from a historical perspective, which is interesting. However – and this is a big however – this book is really really depressing. Ursula is born, lives, something horrible happens to either her or her family; she dies. The cycle repeats. By the end of the book the process of following each life spiral felt sadistic (or masochistic if you’re identifying with Ursula). Of course there is going to be sadness when dealing with a story that covers not just one but two world wars but it covers the wars over and over again and the sadness is repeated and played back in different forms until it feels almost torturous. I did finish the book because I was hoping for a particular ending but, without giving away any spoilers, I can’t tell you want the ending was. I would, however, be very hesitant to recommend this book to anyone wants a neat and tidy story with a beginning, a middle and an end or one who cares whether all the loose ends within a book are tied up. I would recommend it if you liked Human Croquet or The Children’s Book (I did not) but definitely not if you are looking for a Jackson Brodie-style story.

This review on Goodreads
All of my reviews on Goodreads

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

The Rosie Project is Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. The protagonist is Don Tillman, a Sheldon Cooper-esque geneticist who lives a highly organised and ordered existence. With every minute of every day mapped out, despite having few friends Don is not lonely. However, after one of his four friends Daphne tells him he would make some woman an excellent partner, Don decides it’s time to find a wife, so starts the Wife Project, writing an extensive (ridiculous and funny) questionnaire to help him find the perfect woman. Along the way he meets Rosie, a bartender who is trying to find her biological father. Agreeing to help Rosie with the Father Project, Don’s safe existence is challenged in ways that are funny, sweet and completely endearing.

Reading this book reminded me a lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night in that you experience the subjectivity of a person who, for whatever reason, is unable to process social cues and relationships in a normal way. However, The Rosie Project lacks the sadness of the Haddon novel. While there is poignancy in Don’s interactions with other people (in particular with his boss the Dean), Don is so likeable and loveable that all of his quirks add to his charm. The prickly yet gorgeous Rosie turns Don’s life upside-down, broadening the narrow parameters of his existence and encouraging to behave in ways he never has before. Observing the process of Don learning about happiness and contentment is a lovely process and is a huge part of the appeal of this book. In the interest of providing a fair and balanced review, I think I should say that the ending is a bit pat and unbelievable. However, this flaw did not decrease the pleasure I experienced while reading this book at all, so it’s a forgivable error.

In case it’s not clear from this glowing review, I really enjoyed this book. I feel almost evangelical about it – I want everyone to buy it (so that Graeme Simsion earns lots of money so he can write more books) and read it so they can enjoy it also. Stop reading this review and go and read the book!

I have reviewed this book as part of Australian Literature Month 2013.