by Kate Atkinson
Hachette Audio, 2013
12 discs, unabridged
I'm really glad I chose to listen to this as audio versus reading it. This book tends to be a bit polarizing. People I talk to at the library seem to either love it or dislike it in the extreme, and I will be honest: I thought I'd be in the latter group. The last time I read some sort of critically acclaimed literary novel with some sort of fantasy/sci-fi time-bending twist it didn't really go well. Which is an understatement. So I was prepared for that this time, too. Also, I was pretty unexcited about reading a book where a child/young woman dies all the time - specifically, where the author has thought about all the terrible things that can go wrong, and variations on that theme. As the mother of a young child there are some things I don't really need help feeling anxious about.
This was so different from what I expected, and part of it was the narration. Fenella Woolgar does an astounding job: she's pleasant to listen to, her inflection is perfect and added to my understanding of the story, and I never got tired of listening to her read to me. And because of the way I process audio information, the repetition seemed rhythmic. I think reading it I might have gotten bored with the repetition, but listening to it gave it a lovely sense of overlapping variations, like a fugue.
I imagine most people are familiar with this book and its premise, but in case you are not: Ursula Todd dies a lot. Or she doesn't, really. What happens is that each time she does die - from the moment she dies at birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, to the times she dies of Spanish Flu, to the times she dies throughout WWII - she starts over again. But Ursula sort of remembers some things, gets a feeling of dread when bad things are about to happen and is thus able to avoid them, is able to change things, is able to try and try again until she gets it right. Some things are harder to get right than others. It takes a long, long time for her to get through the Spanish Flu. It takes a longer time for her to get through WWII.
But as morbid as that sounds, this isn't really a book about death so much as it is a book about life. It's a book about history, and a book about people. The fact that this is a concept book that is so well-rounded makes me understand why it's so successful. The concept is interesting (though don't go into this thinking it will be explained, or that it's a sci-fi or fantasy novel. It's not.) The characters are fleshed-out. The language is lovely. The history - it is so steeped in history without feeling like Atkinson wrote with a textbook beside her, I loved that. The plot is broken into tiny little pieces a lot of the time, and I find that interesting, not frustrating. But of all the things about this book that people might not like, I can see why that in particular is polarizing. In short, I think this book does have the total package: complex, in-depth characterization, interesting setting(s), great writing, and what I thought was an interesting plot.
I loved the little things that changed, or the not-so-little things. I loved that one got the impression that Atkinson could have just kept going. Though I was pleased with the way the 11th disc ended, I wasn't exactly disappointed there was a 12th disc - though I wasn't exactly delighted with the prospect of what I knew was coming. More about the ending at the end of this review, with very mild spoilers.
Further on the characters, I loved how we were allowed to get to know Sylvie, which allows us to have some sympathy for her when she is really unlovable, and how at the very end we see Hugh a bit better and he is a little less wonderful than he was. (And the mental gymnastics this then makes us do.)
Now. The ending. It's hard to say whether there are plot spoilers, but there might be, so if you don't want those, be prepared to stop before the last paragraph. Just know that overall, I was so concerned about where things were going that I was wondering if I would actually end up liking the book. And by the end, I was so impressed that even though I didn't love the ending exactly, I was kind of amazed by the entire book. Books that amaze me are not as common as one might think from my sometimes superlative language when it comes to talking about them. This one left me feeling a little awestruck. Well worth the effort it takes, I'd say, though I think if you're the sort of person who requires an action-packed, linear plot, you'll be too frustrated to get much out of this one. Because really - it's not the ending that matters at all. It's all about the journey, again and again.
Aarti also just recently wrote about the audio version of Life After Life, and had a different experience (though gives lie to my "love it or hate it" thought, too.) Go see!
/begin mild spoilers
The ending: SO INTERESTING. Really. Structurally, the ending ... kind of ... left me speechless? So here's the thing: when Ursula got to the point of killing Hitler, I thought, right. Yes. We knew this was going to happen, it happens in the first paragraph of the book, though I partially spent the entire book trying to forget about that. Because of course Atkinson would go there, and I was disappointed, because why wouldn't you go there - the predicability was disappointing. But then that wasn't the end, though it was the end of that particular life. Atkinson kept going, and I was really relieved that we weren't ending on that note, because the book got interesting again, immediately. And though the ending was confusing and maybe bit off a bit more than it could chew, it was braver than I thought it was going to be in my wildest dreams. I love unfinished business in an ending: this ending was entirely unfinished, and I loved it for trying that.