Kate Atkinson’s Literary Page-Turner “Life After Life” Will Have You Pondering Parallel Lives

It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is struggling to breathe as the umbilical cord chokes her to death before she can barely experience birth. Darkness falls.

It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born with the help of Dr. Fellowes, who has arrived in time to help mother Sylvie with this tricky birth. And so Ursula’s life begins, until she drowns on a beach trip as a child. Darkness falls.

15790842It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born, continuing to relive her life. Each time she instinctually learns to avoid what troubles occurred in a past (or parallel) life, feeling merely like déjà vu. Kate Atkinson’s newest novel Life After Life is a trippy, humorous exploration of life and fate. Ursula’s continuous lives take her through both World Wars, with devastating and intriguing consequences. Atkinson effortlessly captures each time period, with a sharp wit reminiscent of Forster or Waugh.

If the premise sounds too gimmicky, I can assure you it doesn’t read as such. Atkinson makes it easy to get involved in this single life, with crossover themes, characters, moments, that only serve to enrich each new chapter instead of making it feel like a tedious retread of the same events. If Dan Brown’s Inferno is an obvious, thriller page-turner, Life After Life is one of those rare literary page-turners that will keep you up into the wee hours of the night.

I’ve already declared The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards as the best novel of 2013—or at least my favorite book of the year—but Life After Life could easily rival it. Both are entertaining, addicting, witty, incisive, and thought-provoking. I continue to think about the lives of Ursula and their implications, and I’m already eager to reread the novel.

Hilary Mantel’s Novel Will Encourage You to Vacation at “Wolf Hall”

600_215817662Everyone is familiar with Henry VIII’s story, one way or another. Whether from TV (The Tudors) or film (The Other Boleyn Girl) or just plain old history class, we all know about King Henry’s driving desire for divorce in his quest for a male heir. But acclaimed author Hilary Mantel approaches the story from a different angle in Wolf Hall. She tells the story of Henry VIII and England in the early 1500s through protagonist Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell rose from his working-class family and abusive father into the tutelage of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, feared advisor of the King. Learning from the master of manipulation, Cromwell takes over after Wolsey’s death, assisting the King in obtaining a divorce so he can marry Anne Boleyn. What results is a character study hidden within a game for the throne and Henry’s heir.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is just the first in a planned trilogy following Cromwell in England’s history. She has a very unique voice that takes some acclimatizing to. While told in the omniscient third person, everything unfolds from Cromwell’s perspective with Mantel referring to him constantly as “he” in similar fashion to a first-person narrator referring to themselves as “I.” This removed yet personal perspective gives you a new outlook into the world of England at this time while still providing humorous moments and observations.

For anyone in love with English history, this a new take on an old story. Because Wolf Hall is a part of a trilogy, much of the novel is spent developing Cromwell as a character and setting up many of the other royal characters. It takes nearly 2/3 of the book before it feels that something is really happening with the Anne Boleyn plot, and the ending (dealing with Thomas More) feels anticlimactic. Yet I still find myself eager to read Bringing Up Bodies (the sequel), so it appears that Mantel is at least a captivating storyteller.


“The Flight of Gemma Hardy” brings new twists to a beloved old classic

In her new, compelling novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey tells the story of a contemporary Jane Eyre. Incorporating the familiar story and characters of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Flight of Gemma follows the formative years of Gemma Hardy’s life in 1960s Scotland. But don’t expect Livesey to go exactly by the book.

In this contemporary tale, Livesey tweaks many elements and plot points of its forebear. Certain additions are necessary for the time period; certain subtractions allow for plot twists that stray from the original story. Yet Livesey stays true to the themes of overcoming hardships and dark pasts, as Gemma flies from one home—or shelter—to the next in search of a true family she can love.

Livesey’s writing uses a precise economy of words to create a fully-imagined world through Gemma’s eyes. While certain eccentricities in her writing become tedious (Gemma’s obsession with birds is never-ending), they work to at least stay consistently true to the characters. She also incorporates plenty of biblical allusions, just as Bronte did in her novel, proving that Livesey did her homework.

Flight of Gemma is an easy read that fans of Jane Eyre will greedily devour. It is always fun to place classic novels in a contemporary context, and Livesey manages it effortlessly. For those unfamiliar with Jane Eyre, you should really just go read that instead; but if you find classic literature too daunting to approach, then Flight of Gemma is a simple way to ease yourself into this story.