Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Reviews


A wonderful book that is at once deeply philosophical and thoroughly enjoyable, while bringing the first half of the 20th century to vivid life.

For a book titled Life after Life, there certainly is an abundance of death in Kate Atkinson’s wonderful new novel.  Given the setting – the book’s arc encompasses both World Wars – that is hardly surprising.  Atkinson, however, takes her exploration of death a step further.  She makes it omnipresent in a way that would have pleased the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger.  Kierkegaard wrote that most people live their lives while studiously ignoring their impending death.  That is to say, we know that we will someday die, but we treat our death as a future event with little bearing on the present.  We are mistaken.  Death is real, inevitable, and can come at any time.  Kierkegaard was only halfway joking when he wrote that when accepting an invitation to a party, you should not say, “I shall certainly attend,” but rather, “I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.”

If Kierkegaard had lived today and had written a novel (a lot of “ifs” I know, but bear with me), it might have looked something like Life after Life.  Martin Heidegger – who shared Kierkegaard’s philosophy of death – wrote that “As soon as a man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.”  And sure enough, the book’s heroine Ursula Todd has no sooner been born than she departs this world, her umbilical cord wrapped around her little neck.  This is no spoiler.  It happens within the first ten pages.  As the story unfolds, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies.  She drowns.  She falls.  She is crushed.  She is shot.  She asphyxiates.  And each death starts a new life, a chance to do it over again, a chance to get it right.

The result, for me, was a rather novel experience in which I read in constant anticipation of death, the precise state of mind in which Kierkegaard and Heidegger insisted we should all live.  The question constantly lurked: when will Urusula die?  Rather than being morbid, this obsession with death adds an extra measure of poignancy to each telling of Ursula’s life.  It also allows Atkinson to explore the contingency of life.  As we go through cycle after cycle of Ursula’s life, we see how the smallest events can change the course of an entire existence.  A chance encounter with one of her brother’s friends leads a young Ursula to a life of misery.  A decision to take a walk saves a life.  The gas on the stove flits out for a moment, and she dies.  It stays on, and she lives another twenty years.  Chance plays a role, as do the decisions of Ursula and the cast of interesting characters that surround her.  There is no fate, only repetition.

Which is another of Kierkegaard’s favorite subjects.  Indeed, I suspect that Atkinson has read her fair share of the Danish philosopher.  Fortunately, her book is a more enjoyable read than anything Kierkegaard produced (which is not damning with faint praise, as I rather enjoy Kierkegaard).  Normally the use of words like “fug”, “thrawn”, and “pulchritude” might be enough to turn me off, but Atkinson is a good enough writer to get away with such embellishments.  And she brings the past to vivid life, particularly the Blitz.  Some of the images she invokes – crawling though the ruins of an apartment building and finding oneself kneeling on the spongy remains of a baby caught in the explosion – will stick with me for some time, though I might rather forget them.  And I was glad to see that Atkinson also takes us inside the German bomb shelters.  For as horrible as the Blitz was, the bombing of Germany was much, much worse.  More than 40,000 civilians were killed in England, while between 300,000 and 500,000 German civilians died in RAF bombings that did little to aid the Allied war effort, but which certainly exacted a grizzly revenge for the Blitz.

Life after Life does not have much in the way of traditional plot, nor could it, considering the frequent deaths of its heroine.  It is a meditation on the nature of life and a character study, and fortunately, Atkinson has peopled it with a number of compelling characters.  Ursula’s acerbic mother and kind father, her boorish older brother and sweet, clear-headed sister Pamela, her unorthodox aunt, her lovers, neighbors, and friends are all vividly portrayed.  Indeed, the cast of characters is rich enough that the necessarily repetitive nature of the novel never becomes tedious.  In addition, Atkinson does a wonderful job of continually tweaking the book’s formula in order to keep the reader interested.  When a moment in her life starts to grow stale, the book moves on.  Sometimes, I longed for Ursula to dies.  Sometimes, I rooted for her to live.

In the end, Ursula embraces her mortality in a way that is a bit fantastical, but utterly satisfying.  Kierkegaard felt that to truly live, we must accept that we could die at any time.  By the end of Life after Life, it is safe to say that Ursula Todd has surely done so.

I love to read and have since I was a child.  My love of books is why I became a novelist in the first place.  It has been a bit disappointing, then, to find that the more I write, the less I seem to read.  When I do find time for a book, it is usually research for one of my novels.  Between writing, research and my lovely-but-time-intensive young daughters, it has gotten to the point where I’m lucky if I read ten novels in a year.

No more!  In an effort to force myself to read more, I have decided to start posting bi-weekly (that’s fortnightly, not twice a week) reviews of books I have read.  Most reviews will be of historical fiction novels, although the occasional non-fiction book will creep in.  I’ve started with a review of David Cowley’s non-fiction book, How We’d Talk if the English Had WON in 1066, which is a beginner’s guide to how English might have looked had William the Conqueror been instead William the Defeated.  Upcoming reviews will include Tim Griggs’ Distant Thunder, Manda Scott’s The Art of War, and Jane Harlond’s The Chosen Man.

David Cowley’s book is an enjoyable thought experiment – a beginners guide not to Old English, but to how modern English might have looked had the English won at Hastings.

How would we talk if the English had won at Hastings?  The giant question hinted at on the cover of David Cowley’s interesting book is front and centre throughout.  As Cowley himself admits (in updated Old English), “Swith hard to tell!”  Indeed it is.  Counterfactuals tend to make historians like myself a bit uneasy, and this one is a doozy.  Nearly a thousand years have passed since William bested Harold.  That’s a lot of time.  If the outcome of the battle were changed, it is impossible to know where we’d be today.

One can say with certainty, though, that a lot besides our language would be different.  The Norman invasion took England out of a Scandinavian orbit including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and brought it into a different one focused on the relationship with France and Western Europe.  It ended slavery in England (over 10% of the English were recorded as slaves in the Domesday book of 1086) and replaced it with feudalism – hardly an improvement since slaves, unlike serfs, could at least in some cases buy their freedom.  And it perhaps made England a more secure country through the Normans’ devotion to castle building.  It is worth bearing in mind that before William and his followers conquered England, it had already fallen to the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, and only fifty years previously, the Danes.  Would England have remained unconquered if Harold had won?  Maybe not.

All of these uncertainties mean that it is impossible to know how the English language might have evolved had Harold won.  Before William, the language of the Britons had already been pushed to the fringes of the island, living on only in Wales.  It left only a few traces in Old English.  And in Harold’s time, the Danish presence in England was making its presence felt on the language, producing words like “earl”, “berserk”, “lad”, and even “egg”.  It was the rubbing together of Old English and Old Norse that had begun to remove the case endings from Old English.  Had Harold driven out both the Danes and the Normans, might English have remained a case language, like German?  Had the Danes invaded again, might it look more like Danish?  Or might it have evolved more like Cowley suggests when he presents a list of words “based on a knowledge of how current words which are from Old English have changed since that time”?  Any or none of these is possible.

Setting aside, then, the impossible question of how we might speak had Harold won, Cowley’s book is great fun, and a real treasure for authors and re-enactors seeking to write or speak in a form of English that is both intelligible to modern readers and at the same time closer to the language of our Saxon ancestors.  For readers who read Old English, scanning his list of updated words is a fun game of linguistic what-if.  Personally, I have found his book something of a godsend as I seek to create more authentic dialogue for the Saxon characters in my books.

While Cowley attempts to impart some of the basics of Old English grammar with a few interesting lessons, for the most part his book is simply a really big list of updated Old English words.  Because the words are updated, he is in effect presenting a different version of modern English, a version stripped of Latin and French additions and enriched by some lost words from the past, some of which are immediately understandable and some of which are not.  Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore).  These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley).  Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves).

All told, the book has more than enough interesting and fun words to entertain even the casual reader.  But is there enough here to justify Cowley’s contention that our language might be better off if the English had won at Hastings?  Of this, I am less certain.  Cowley argues that class differences would be less sharply drawn had there been no linguistic split between French speaking nobles and English speaking commoners.  Perhaps.  Looking across the Channel, however, we see no such split in France, and yet the French managed to develop some pretty stark class differences.  And we must remember that pre-Conquest England – a land of ealdorman, thegns, ceorls, thralls, and slaves – was not exactly egalitarian.

As for the fate of the English language, it is true that we are missing some words from our past, but we have gained many, many more.  For Cowley, this is a potential problem.  He points to “sight” and “vision” as the sort of unnecessary duplication that Hastings wrought.  But to my mind, the wealth of words we have to choose from is part of what makes English such a rich language.  For “sight” and “vision” are not exact equivalents.  Calling someone a man of great vision does not mean the same as calling him a man of great sight.  And a woman can have foresight or second sight while forevision and second vision sound like medical conditions.  Combining Old English and Old French has given us a wealth of words with subtly differing connotations.  It has given us the language of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot.  That, in my opinion, is worth a little confusion.

 

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