LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson Doubleday, 2013 €14.99 *****
I haven't enjoyed a book as thoroughly in a good while. Since it's my job to know why, I've been working on reasoning it out, and have found that reason doesn't always come into play when you simply enjoy an excellent story.
From the very first, with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson has shown a real interest, and imagination, as to our entrances as human beings, and here, she applies her formidable imagination to our exits.
How many chances do we really have, as souls, to 'do' life correctly? How many times do we come close to an exit out of life, and are somehow pulled back from the brink?
In the case of her main protagonist, Ursula Todd, it appears that even when it all seems about to end badly, someone else's story requires that they intervene.
Ursula is uncomfortably aware that something odd is going on, but she can't put her finger on it; despite this, she continues on, indefatigably, particularly during what is the backbone of the novel, the London Blitz of WWII.
The key to the beauty and the inspiration of this narrative is the reality that our lives intertwine with those of others in ways we cannot imagine, and there is the possibility that in parallel universes, our choices are playing out, for good or ill. In Ursula's case, her life had tentacles that reached out to a lone painter on a sandy beach in England, and to Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.
In Atkinson's extraordinarily capable hands, it's all plausible.
The structure of the stories is as robust as that of, I don't know, the Pyramids in Egypt, maybe, and we are drawn along, in and out of tragedy and triumph, with great humour, superb characterisations, and a genuinely suspenseful unfolding of fates.
In the end, it all comes down to one thing: love, and what love will do for the loved one, and the simple acknowledgment of that gesture, the simple gratitude, makes this crazy thing we call life worthwhile.
In contention for the Women's Prize, the rather unimaginative new name for The Orange Prize, Life After Life has my vote, hands down. I spent the week in a variety of time periods, from present day to Regency times...
GRACE AND MARY by Melvyn Bragg Sceptre, 2013 €20 ****
John's mum Mary is seeing out her life in a seaside nursing home. She is suffering from dementia; he is suffering from her suffering, and from the loss not only of her life, but of the part she plays in his own life story. The narrative is effectively his reconstruction of her history, primarily that of her enforced estrangement from her own unwed mother, Grace. Bragg's voice is lovely, and elegiac, honouring a family and a way of life that is lost. It is compact, verging on slight, however, for the cover price.
THE PALACE OF CURIOSITIES by Rosie Garland HarperCollins, 2013 €18.75 **
A tale of Beast and Beast, in which we are to intuit the Beauty, this has been compared to works by Angela Carter, but it doesn't have quite the same bewitching qualities.
Eve is a lion-faced woman, and Abel is a man who can't die; both end up in what is essentially a Victorian freak show, and questions of what constitutes general freakishness are asked.
The writing is dense, which signals the author's background as a poet, but this excess richness in turn hampers the rhythm of the novel.
LORD OF DARKNESS by Elizabeth Hoyt Piatkus, 2013 €24.50 ***
As an avid reader of 18th-century-set romance novels – I'm not ashamed! – it can often feel like many of the details regarding food, dress and manners have been culled from a random content generator. Then you read a novel that lacks almost all such details, and you feel the loss.
This is the fifth in Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, and while there is an at-sea feeling because you've missed the previous stories, it's not that prevalent.
The characters are enjoyable, but the feeling of a whole world being evoked isn't there.
PERFECT WIVES by Emma Hannigan Hachette, 2013 €13.99 **
Jodi is an actual movie star; Francine the star of the local school gate. Jodi was discovered as a teen in the Dublin slums; Francine has been Superwoman for the whole of her life. When both are faced with life-changing dramas, they become pals.
The idea of someone of Jennifer Aniston proportions moving into an Irish village is interesting but Hannigan's overly expository dialogue lumbers the interest of the plot.