Monthly Archives: May 2013

Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifeKate Atkinson is without question one of my favorite authors. From the delightfully genre-tripping Effie of Emotionally Weird, to the friends sustaining each other with stories in Not the End of the World, to the incomparable detective Jackson Brodie in Case Histories, Atkinson consistently creates characters who inhabit vivid, gripping narratives that defy categorization.

Life After Life is no exception. In it, Ursula is born and reborn repeatedly, succumbing to the dangers of birth and the pitfalls of childhood. The faintest memories of her other lives occasionally seep through into Ursula’s consciousness, a form of déjà vu that prevents her from making the same fatal mistake the next time around (but not from making new ones.) Worse even than the mistakes that kill her are the mistakes she must live with, especially since we know it didn’t have to be that way.

What was most intriguing and puzzling to me about this concept was its linearity. Ursula’s lives seem to represent a progression toward a particular outcome: killing Adolf Hitler. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s literally the first scene in the book.)

In Lionel Shriver’s book The Post-Birthday World and the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, a woman makes a choice (to cheat or not to cheat, to jump for the train or let it go) and as a result her life splits into two alternate scenarios. Unlike those stories, Life After Life moves forward in a series of loops as Ursula lives her life from start to finish, returning to her birth in order to move on. Are all these lives lived concurrently, with the details bleeding through from one universe to another? Is Ursula’s ability to sense the mistakes of her other lives what makes her special? Or is everyone moving toward some ideal version of life meant only for them, at which point they can rest in a state of infinite nirvana? Or does it never end? I may have closed the book on Life After Life, but the questions it raises are still circling in my head.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You love a thought-provoking story that refuses to answer all your questions, or you were a big fan of Choose Your Own Adventure novels as a kid.

Skip it if: You are easily confused, you prefer a clear conclusion, or you frequently tag your tweets with #YOLO.

Movie-worthy: Hard to imagine, but I’d pay to see it!

Review: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

AbsolutionThe intersection of fiction and memory is a puzzling place, with unclear boundaries. In Absolution, South African author Clare Wald has agreed to discuss her work and past with a biographer, a young man from Cape Town who has since moved to America. As Clare struggles to make sense of her guilt over the past, memories of her long dead sister and her missing daughter haunt her.

Alternating texts offer different vantage points on the events at the heart of the story. Who was Clare’s daughter, Laura? What role did she play in the life of a young orphaned boy? Clare tells her own version of the actions that led to Laura’s disappearance, striving to apply her talent for fiction to generate some element of truth about her daughter. Meanwhile, her biographer, Sam, attempts to sort through Clare’s words on paper and in person, in hopes of arriving at the truth of her life. Yet Sam also harbors a secret and his new role in her life is no coincidence. By the time the story draws to a conclusion, this novel calls into question whether you can really know the truth about yourself, let alone another person; whether you can ever expect forgiveness, let alone absolution.

Remarkably, the author is an American currently living in the UK. This was particularly startling to me because the novel assumes a certain degree of background knowledge about South Africa. There is very little general description of apartheid, no discussion of the circumstances that transformed the country, no lengthy explanation of how South Africa might be different in 1989, in 1999, in the present, all times when different parts of the story take place. This made the story more challenging to follow in some ways, but intensified the focus on the characters and their actions, highlighting one of Clare’s fundamental questions: does a lofty political motivation make an otherwise evil act justifiable?

As a side note, I can’t imagine the South African Board of Tourism is particularly thrilled with this novel. Living in constant fear of being murdered would presumably have a serious impact on your quality of life.

Genre: Literary historical fiction

Read it if: You enjoy puzzling out the truth on your own and don’t mind ambiguity, and/or your favorite movie is Rashomon.

Skip it if: You lose patience when the narrative skips around in time, offers conflicting perspectives on the same scene, and includes a novel within the novel.

Movie-worthy: It would take a truly brilliant director to transform this into a movie. Maybe Christopher Nolan, a la Memento.


Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanRaami is seven when the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh. She is a princess, the daughter of a prince, and despite the fact that polio has left her with a limp, she lives a charmed, almost magical existence surrounded by people who love and care for her. The beauty of the initial scenes in this lyrical, heartbreaking novel are made all the more poignant by the fact that the reader knows what is coming. When Raami’s father celebrates the news that the war is over, we know how wrong he is.

The author, Vaddey Ratner, based this novel on her own experiences as a child in Cambodia, and I can only imagine how excruciating it must have been to revisit the events she describes. The title comes from a cryptic statement made by Raami’s grandmother, that only as many shall survive as can fit in the shadow of the banyan tree. Tragically for Raami’s family and for Cambodia, her words are all too prophetic.

Raami’s mother is strong and resilient; she has not led the sheltered life she hoped to give her children. Clearly, Raami is her mother’s daughter, but she feels closest to her father, a poet. His sensitivity and eye for beauty are a source of both meaning and pain to her throughout her struggle to survive, as the world around her becomes completely incomprehensible.

Seeing the brutality of war, the domination of ignorance, from a child’s perspective makes it somehow that much worse. Unlike in Room, where Emma Donoghue’s five-year-old narrator does not understand the horror of his mother’s situation and provides narrative distance, Raami sees too much, understands too much. Her resilience is the only note of hope in a powerfully heartrending story of a country destroyed.

Genre: Literary historical fiction

Read it if: You want to know what it would be like to lose almost everything and still find a way to survive.

Skip it if: You are sensitive to scenes of violence, especially cruelty toward children.

Movie-worthy: This would make a fascinating but extremely intense movie.