Brilliant! One of the best books I have read in a long time. Reading just such a book is what a holiday is for. And like a good holiday I didn’t want it to end and, in a way, it didn’t!
The story is built on the idea that the central character Ursula, was given by a peculiar twist of fate at birth, the gift of being able to come back and live life over and over thereby putting right some of the things that have gone wrong in previous lives. This is not as tedious as it might sound, Ursula is only vaguely aware for most of the book that this is how her life works. (I almost didn’t read this book as the film Groundhog Day which is based around a similar idea is my least favourite film).
In Atkinson’s hands the story works brilliantly. It begins with a scene we revisit many times, Ursula’s birth in 1910 and spans both world wars but the major part of the action is around the Second World War which we inhabit from a variety of perspectives as Ursula’s many lives cross and recross, intersecting and taking different turns at key moments. ‘Inhabit’ is how the writing makes you feel, as though you are really there.
The historical backdrop is huge and very well researched but we live through the lives, hopes, dreams and despairs of Ursula’s family and their life stories. Every time Ursula dies (and she dies a lot!) we know that reality for everyone will be slightly rearranged, Atkinson makes much use of the idea that life can often turn on the smallest of actions, the significance of which we may not even know at the time.
Things I loved about this book: the characters. Very believably drawn, especially the sibling animosity and fierce loyalty as well as parental favouritism. The interior landscape of her parents’ marriage is so deftly drawn by mere snatches of conversation. One of her marriages in one of her lives was so appalling I almost couldn’t bear to read that entire life story and couldn’t wait for her to die just so she could escape.
I loved the use of long words and the quotations from literature neither of which comes across as pretentious, but unless you have a particularly wide vocabulary you might need a dictionary. (Reading on a kindle was useful in this regard but a hard copy is always easier to flick back through something you may want to do a lot in this novel). It felt like I had my clever, well read friend, Edwina on holiday with me.
Finally, and it’s only a minor theme but I love the way Atkinson understands the key role that animals particularly dogs play in our lives.
I don’t really think it’s a story about a character trying to live a perfect life so much as an exploration of how we get to be the people we are: sometimes affected by events beyond our control that we cannot influence, sometimes affected by choices we ourselves make.
In the first book I read this week, Perfect by Rachel Joyce (author of Harold Fry book, this one felt much darker) one of the characters says bleakly ‘sometimes it is easier to live out the mistakes we have made, rather than summon the energy and imagination to repair them’. In the Joyce book we see lives that have been wrecked by a misunderstanding and are only barely salvaged at the of the book (and at the end of the characters lives) which is heart-breakingly sad even if it is realistic. Somehow Atkinson left me feeling that life can be changed now. Redemption is possible, even if I need to die a little along the way. Not a uniquely Buddhist idea, actually fairly Biblical (Matthew 16: 25 etc)