Updated to include a link to the video of Kate Atkinson's session at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival in June 2013
Kate Atkinson’s novels share a number of characteristics, including sardonic humour, quirky characters and an exploration of the highs and lows of relationships between parents and children and between siblings. This novel is no different. Added to the mix is a particularly intriguing plot. It centres on Ursula Todd, who is born, dies and is re-born over and over again, living her life in startlingly different ways through the most turbulent events of the 20th century.
The book blurb suggests that the question the novel explores is: "What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?" While this question is posed by one of the characters, it didn’t really strike me that this is what the novel is about. Rather, it’s more about all of the paths that a person’s life can take depending on a range of factors, including their own decisions, the acts or omissions of other people and random events over which no one has control. In their impact on Ursula, these factors create a complex web of alternative realities, so that she lives different lives in parallel worlds.
Ursula’s lives can be seen an infinite series of forks in the road of time, with each fork representing a moment of crisis and subsequent change. However, the narrative layers Ursula’s different lives on top of each other, so that she can sense them, through déja-vu experiences, through presentiments of doom or simply through feeling that something is not quite the way it should be. Ursula states at one point that time is like a palimpsest and this is exactly the impression that Atkinson creates. The ways in which Ursula’s lives differ one from the other are given additional force by the things that stay the same: Ursula’s essential character, the personalities of her parents and siblings, the nature of her relationships with them, the family home. With each layer of a different life, Ursula, her parents and siblings age and develop; yet they remain recognisably themselves, for good or bad.
For me, another theme that ran through the novel is that of the role of the novelist. Novelists create worlds that they people with their characters. They decide whether their characters live or die. They make wars happen and stop them from happening. This novel is an illustration of the infinite choices a novelist can make. It contains many references to writers and their works, including Donne, Marvell, Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot, Dickens and du Maurier, to name but a few. The references draw attention to the fact that this too is a work of the imagination.
I’ve thought a lot about this work in the two days since I finished reading it. Initially not sure how to rate it, I’ve decided that there really isn’t anything about this novel I would want to see changed. I found it thought provoking and intensely moving. So five stars it is. Anyway, how could I resist giving five stars to a novelist who uses the word palimpsest and creates such an interesting version of one?
This was very enjoyable to read with my good friend Jemidar.