Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing have more in common than the hue of their respective book covers. They are both shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award and they both play with time.
I’ll admit I was a little worried about the premise of Atkinson’s novel. Ursula Todd dies to live again – time and time again throughout the 20th century. I thought that the license this allowed would result in pure whimsy, a novel with not much hanging it together. How wrong could I be? Very. For each iteration of Ursula’s life not only gets longer, as mistakes from the previous iteration are learned and the fatal mistakes averted. In so doing, her life (lives) span the century and its traumas and a composite picture is gained – with a splash of alternative history here and there. Playful it it in places; whimsical it is not. In fact you could say there is a grounding in reality that contrasts sharply with the central premise.
This realism is what makes Life after Life such an absorbing read. Whether Atkinson is describing the upstairs/downstairs society and innocence of Edwardian England, the emotional shock and isolation of a battered wife, the realities of the Blitz, these scenes are written with an eye for the smallest details that render it entirely authentic. There’s only one road taken that doesn’t hold true; the one that sees Ursula experiencing the Second World War as Eva Braun’s friend. Of course, the novel is asking the reader to suspend disbelief throughout; that seam, however, was a stretch too far.
Ursula’s death(s), which come suddenly, are indicated by the words darkness falls. And yet the past leaks into the future, impacting Ursula’s life in positive ways, until she survives long enough to live to a ripe old age. Whether Ursula is conscious of this is a bit of a puzzle. I’m not entirely sure she is, but in one dramatic moment she seems to be aware of the future. (She pushes the maid down the stairs to save her from something more terrible!)
There’s no dubiety in Jake Whyte’s awareness of her past in Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing. She’s running from it, as far away from it as she can. The present sees her operating a sheep farm on a British island (it was never clear to me which one). She is a recluse even though the small community would welcome her. What is she afraid of? Firstly, the mysterious beast that is killing her flock and secondly, her past. She does not want anyone to know what she was before – no, it is stronger than that. She is terrified that someone will learn the secrets of her past.
As readers we are privy to that past as in a parallel narrative, told in reverse chronological sequence and yes, I can understand why Jake feels the way she does. Hers is a sordid tale which takes us back to the moment that were Jake transcribed into Atinson’s novel, she would be able to put right and change the pattern of her life. In Wyld’s novel, however, it is a low point that cannot be undone and triggers an ever-downward spiral ….
… which requires a radical change of mindset to break out of. Yet, when she does, and you have to applaud her gutsiness, she may be free physically, but not psychologically. Fleeing from a sheep farm in Australia to a sheep farm in Britain (which is where we meet her on page one), has she brought her terrors with her? Is this not one of the best first sentences of the year?
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her life like a steamed pudding.
This is the mystery of the present. What is killing Jake’s sheep? Is it real or simply a psychological manifestation? I admit I was dissatisfied with the ambiguity of the text here. (That’s putting it mildly – I flung the book down in disgust! Another author, another trick too far …). Having since thought about it, the clues are elsewhere. The present stream written in the past tense converging neatly with Jake’s history written in the present tense; the mysterious stranger who inveigles his way into her life, allowed to do so because as Jake says he does not know me and a sense that the terrors are over. Jakes stands on the threshold of a new home, one that will finally replace the home she lost so many years before.
Life After Life / All The Birds, Singing