If I had to pick a favourite contemporary female writer, it would have to be Kate Atkinson. From her first published novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to her Jackson Brodie crime fiction novels, and, more recently, the much-praised Life After Life and the 2015 Costa Novel Award winning, A God in Ruins, Atkinson’s books are witty, human, delicately emotional, and expertly crafted.
Part of her appeal for me is her ability to create, and maintain, a sense of place in each novel. The loci in her works are very important; often the cities in which her novels are set are characters themselves. And this is because her relationships with the worlds her characters inhabit are intensely personal. Atkinson was born and grew up in York, and the York presented in Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the York she knew intimately; the museum the title refers to is York Castle Museum, which has replica house fronts from the time Atkinson was growing up. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a perfect snapshot of what it was like to live and work in York during the 20th century. It’s funny and very moving –everyone who lives in York, no matter how temporarily, should read it. This kind of relationship with her settings continues throughout her work. Even her most recent Jackson Brodie detective novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, is set locally, this time in Leeds. Atkinson’s fictional worlds are fused with reality by their ties with their settings, and this is what helps to make her stories so emotionally evocative. Her characters don’t seem fictitious, they’re authentic, embedded in their surroundings and utterly believable. That and her brilliant hand for dialogue; she can make you laugh out loud and cry with only one page of dialogue.
Her two most recent novels, Life After Life, and its companion (NOT the sequel) A God in Ruins, are a different matter, however. Instead of firmly settling her characters, Atkinson displaces them, starting with her lead character in Life After Life, Ursula Todd, who has the ability to live the same life over and over. Factor in two world wars and her penchant for attracting danger, and you get a lot of narratorial displacement too. The reader finds their sense of place with Atkinson’s characters’ place in history, rather than a geographical location.
A God in Ruins won the 2015 Costa Novel Award, and focuses on Ursula’s brother, Teddy, but in order to fully understand the context of Teddy’s comparatively normal life, you must first read Life After Life. It is, simply put, a brilliant book and needs to be adapted for the screen. The story of the Todd family, specifically Ursula and her mother, Sylvie, poses the question of what you would do if you could live your life over until you got it right. Issues of identity, morals, and duty arise as Ursula experiences life after life in the 20th century, but whether it’s her life, or indeed multiple lives, never becomes clear. Along the way are glimpses of life in the idyllic English countryside, wartime blitzed London, and decimated Germany. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that once Ursula understands her gift, she makes a logical and thrilling choice.
Life After Life’s central focus in all of the strands of life explored is the Second World War. While life after life was lost in one of the bloodiest events in human history, Atkinson’s novel, flitting between just a small sample of those lives, sends a strong and poignant message that it was preventable. She doesn’t do this by arguing the ins and outs of politics, however, but through looking at human relationships and the significance of the choices we make when gifted with the invaluable: immortality. Life After Life is a book that could never end, but Atkinson, with her usual finesse, renders continuing Ursula’s story irrelevant because this is already a perfect novel.