Recently two or three friends whose opinions I trust recommended “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson. It’s been a popular book group selection, a novel about a woman is reincarnated several times, set in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Germany. For me, it’s the third book I’ve read in a very short time span that addresses the Nazi era.
In the book’s opening scene, Ursula Todd enters a bar and shoots Adolf Hitler. In the second, she is born and dies immediately. In the third, she is born and lives. As Ursula’s story moves along, she is reincarnated several times and is able to avert tragedies that happened in previous lives. She always feels somewhat apart from others, experiencing fierce deja vu and vivid premonitions.
In Kate Atkinson’s capable hands, this works. Much of the story centers on Ursula’s family and a small circle of friends. Her relationship to them seems not to evolve significantly with each new life. A second aspect of the novel involves Ursula and World War II, when she experiences some lives in London before and during the Blitz, others in Germany in Hitler’s social circles.
An omniscient narrator tells the stories, ending each life usually with the phrase, “darkness fell.” The distance of the narrator contrasts with the intensity of Ursula’s unique experience.
Although I absolutely believe that this novel works well, I’ve been slightly reluctant to recommend it to others, partly because the whole reincarnation idea seems too fantasy-like, too made-up. Perhaps I’m not willing enough to follow a novelist down the path of “What if the world were different in THIS way….”
Even so, I see this as an excellent book group choice. It covers so many bases–family relationships, the World War II era, the role of women, and the meaning of mortality. “Life After Life” invites readers to reconsider a basic idea of how our world works, and then to ponder how countless ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, rest on that one idea.
The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books” list each year remains one of my favorite reading sources. The 2012 list included “HHhH” by Laurent Binet, a novel originally written in French, describing the actual events leading up to the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, known as “the Butcher of Prague.”
The intriguing title refers to the first letters of the German words in the phrase, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” Indeed, as Himmler’s protege Heydrich had risen in power to be a man much feared. His brutal treatment of the Czechoslovakians, for whom he was named “protector,” typified Germany’s harsh conduct in the countries it took over to the east.
Binet details the steps in Heydrich’s rise to power, which is quite well chronicled. He does his best to note how the group of assassins came to this place and time, where there is much less information. I found myself wrapped up in the suspense of their all coming together, knowing the stakes for the “guilty” as well as the “innocent.”
As I read this, I often wondered by Binet didn’t simply write an account that would be considered nonfiction. A distinctive aspect of this novel is that Binet often inserts himself directly into the story, describing quandaries of missing information, or how his book compares to others, or how to portray the reliability of someone’s story. I sensed his concern for creating an account that was truthful, and found these insertions intriguing. What wasn’t clear was the degree to which his reflections were actual descriptions of his thought process, or to which they were simply a writer’s technique.
The story is told in 327 pages, 257 sections varying in length from a short paragraph to several pages. At the point when the assassins attack Heydrich, I expected several short descriptions of action. Instead, Binet provides a four-page paragraph of chronology.
The outcome is horrific–reprisals for this act were extravagantly brutal. It took several days for the assassins to be tracked down, and even longer to be nearly flushed out of their hiding place before they committed suicide. In the end, Binet seems to want to show that the act was worthwhile.
The Nazi era continues to provide fodder for thoughtful writing, and the size of its reading audience seems to hold steady. There’s something about this book that had my thoughts returning to it much later, long after I’d moved on to my next book. I recommend this to those who are interested in the era, who appreciate unusual novel styles, and to people who tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Although it may not present the usual themes that many book groups seek, it begs to be read, and then it begs to be discussed.
I’m happily in the midst of my “open season” for reading, now that I’ve finished up with the 2013 American Library Association Notable Books List.
Set in Alaska in the 1920’s, it’s the story of a married couple trying their hand at clearing land and farming. In their 50’s, they’re hoping for a new start, away from their New England families, and away from whispers and pity about their childlessness.
For the most part, the book is about Mabel, who fears that the move to Alaska has been a big mistake, that it simply reinforces the chill in the distance that has developed between her and her husband, Jack. Then a remarkable thing happens–a girl appears at their home. Mystery surrounds her. To whom does she belong? How does she survive in the brutal Alaskan landscape? Is she real?
The novel parallels the folk tale of the snow child, in ways that on the one hand seem exciting and hopeful, and on the other, strange and heartbreaking. The symbolism of the girl, and ice, and animals, creates a strong psychological undercurrent. Yet, Ivey crafts this story in ways that become compelling.
This is a great choice for book groups–I was dying to discuss it with someone–and thank my friend Shari for meeting me for coffee to talk it over, and for pointing out some aspects of style that provide intriguing clues.
I’m recommending this to a wide variety of fiction readers–its fascinating combination of marriage story, adventure, and magic, holds broad appeal. As we enter winter, this is a perfect choice for a cold-but-cozy evening.
When the Just Desserts mystery fiction discussion group met on June 27th, 2013, 16 of us discussed the 2008 novel The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen, one of her Rizzoli & Isles mystery thrillers, which inspired the TNT television series of the same name.
Whether or not you attended the actual meeting, you are welcome to share your own thoughts and opinions about this book in a reply comment to this blog post, below.
For additional reminders about upcoming Just Desserts meetings and/or other announcements of interest to mystery fans, don’t forget to sign up for the Just Desserts e-mail list. Or, if you’re logged into your account on Facebook, you can visit the Events page for the Lincoln City Libraries, and mark whether or not you plan to attend upcoming sessions of Just Desserts – this is a great way for you to help us promote this engaging discussion group! Our selections for future meetings are usually posted there months in advance.
What do you think of The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen?
I’m a few titles in to this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association, and just finished “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich.
One sentence summary–An adult Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, and his response to a brutal sexual attack on his mother.
One sentence evaluation–This is classic Erdrich, excellent writing and even better character development, all wrapped up in contemporary Ojibwe culture–a great book group book.
I find something especially compelling in novels about how crime impacts people. I recently finished another Notable, “Canada” by Richard Ford, with a similar construction of a man looking back on how crimes committed by his parents pulled his family apart.
In “The Round House,” Joe tells the story of events that happened in 1988, his mother not coming home as expected, and then finally arriving home with awful injuries. Watching his parents floundering in response to the attack, he relies on his strong ties with friends and extended family. LIttle by little he comes to understand what happened to his mother; his father’s role as a tribal judge pulls in further information, and interesting aspects of tribal law. When Joe puts in place his response, it’s in the full context of all of the people who have surrounded him.
I’ll recommend this to Erdrich’s fans, and because it has few of the fantastic elements of some of her other books, I think it might work for people who haven’t taken to some of her previous work. I think it’d also be of interest as an outlier for people who read traditional mystery series–a different slant on a crime novel, with an ending that isn’t formula, but is expected in the best storytelling sense of tightening and sharpening the telling toward a dangerously pointed end.