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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

An Exercise in Technique

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson, Fenella Woolgar

The central premise of this novel is that Ursula, born to middle-class parents in rural England in 1910, gets to live her life over and over again, learning from a series of catastrophic mistakes.

One life is cut short by a botched abortion after she is raped by a friend of her brother but the next time round she doesn't give him the opportunity to pin her against the wall. In many of her lives her beloved younger brother is killed in the Second World Wear; but by the end she has learned enough to travel to Germany, befriend Eva Braun, inveigle herself into Hitler’s company and assassinate him.

Despite this high-concept flourish, the most impressive feature of the book is not the plot but rather Atkinson’s minute observation of visual and emotional detail. She builds her characters out of tiny assemblages of everyday occurrences that she arranges so convincingly the reader is transfixed, even when the same character is repeatedly reprised.

It’s a narrative tour de force with a huge amount of really delicious writing to enjoy. Nevertheless, by the end I found myself a little underwhelmed. The whole thing seemed a little too tenuous, as if it had all just been an exercise in technique rather than a story that simply had to be told.