A Trick I Learned from Dead Men – Kitty Aldridge

‘Lee Hart is a knob,’ says the local graffiti. Lee Hart is also an undertaker at Shakespeare & Son as well as older brother to the deaf Ned and carer for both Ned and their stepfather Lester. Lester has lost all hope since his wife/Lee and Ned’s mother died of cancer and he spends his days sitting on the settee watching reality television programmes. The living dead, we might say.

Lee’s job has taught him about death, or so he thinks. It’s taught him that:

Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead…It’s true that you’re somebody when you’re dead, you get respect.

And that people have odd penchants for items that they want to take with them when they’re dead:

Mr Muldarney is causing a stir. The Basic Coffin. Blue frill. Gown. Embalm no. Viewing: TBA. Awaiting crem details. Personal Effects: A photograph of a little boy. Set of teeth. An onion.

Yours truly despatched to Somerfield for said onion. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Other light relief comes in the form of the local florist Lorelle, who Lee has his eye on:

From her perspective life looks like one mad raving bender of birth, baptism, marriage, death. All the big dates in human life. P’raps her view is as skewed as mine after all. Nice to have things in common.

He sets out to win her heart by following a magazine article he’s read titled ‘Five Things Girls Can’t Resist’.

But the real core of the story comes from Lee’s relationship with Ned. Ned’s deafness was caused by him catching mumps at four months. He hadn’t been inoculated against them. He caught the disease from Lee.

He was a gifted child. She told me that. I believed her. She was terrified he might wander on to the dual carriageway: Ned was drawn to electric fences, lightning, canals, traffic. I thought about that. I told him deaf people couldn’t die. I thought it would cheer him up. I led him to the dual carriageway. Not to hurt him, on the contrary, I wanted to watch him survive, use his gift, see how he did it. A gap in the traffic, off he ran, arms out like a bird. No fear. Halfway across he stood at the crash barrier, waving, watching the cars rocketing. The horror on the drivers’ faces made us laugh, the brake lights flashing as the cars slowed. Result! I was proud, the effect he had, definitely a gift.

But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the dark undertone that seems to define the relationship between the two boys is being pushed to the forefront. Lee resents Ned’s special status and Ned seems to blame Lee for their mother’s death.

Lee’s voice, however, helps to prevent the novel becoming too dark. He talks in clichés a lot (which can be irritating, depending on your viewpoint); he cares about whether his language makes him ‘come over as a ponce’ when he’s introduced to new words, and he ends sentences with the word ‘but’. It’s as though Lee has to recognise the dark elements in life but tries to distance himself from them.

A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is an interesting look at death from different angles. It permeates Lee Hart’s life, which suggests that the book will be incredibly depressing but it’s not. There are bleak moments but there are also points that signal hope too. Worth a read.

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s one of those writers who I always feel I ought to have read. I’ve had a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in the house for goodness knows how long but it’s one of those books that, every now and then, I pick up, consider and, for whatever reason, decide it doesn’t quite take my fancy right now.

When my copy of Flight Behaviour arrived, I had two thoughts. The first was that it’s huge (433 pages) – I have issues with overlong novels – and the second was a worry that it’d be boring. Then I opened the first page:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and its one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how hard one little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one.

I was engaged and remained so for the next 432 pages.

Flight Behaviour is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and how climate change changes her. She’s walking up that hill in the opening paragraph of the novel to meet her lover but, as she gets higher up the forest, she looks across and sees that the trees are on fire:

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds…

A forest fire, if that’s what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence.

Dellarobia takes it as a sign, turns around and goes back to her children and husband.

Dellarobia’s married to Cub, a sheep farmer from Feathertown who works on his parents’ land – his and Dellarobia’s house is built upon it – and still does whatever his mother tells him to. Dellarobia’s frustration comes from his family’s attitude towards her:

“My family, is just, I guess, typical. They feel like a wife working outside the home is a reflection on the husband.”

Dellarobia was one of the few students in her year that was told to try out for college. She did but soon discovered she was pregnant and that was the end of that. We sympathise with her then when her frustrations with her life are channeled through crushes on other men – she swears that when we meet her marching up that hill is the only time she’s actually considered being unfaithful though.

However, when Cub reveals that his father is going to sell the forest for logging to cover debts racked up by the poor harvest the previous year, Dellarobia knows she must show them what’s on that hill and when the things that they discover lead to national press coverage, a team of scientists stationing themselves on their land and tourists visiting, she discovers she can change her life by herself.

Flight Behaviour is simply good storytelling. I say ‘simply’ because, of course, Kingsolver is experienced and skilled enough to make creating believable characters and a cracking story look simple. She covers themes of climate change, religion, small town sensibilities, family secrets, marriage and thwarted ambition without it ever feeling that her characters are merely cyphers or that we’re having her opinions spelt out to us. This is a book to get lost in.

N-W – Zadie Smith

N-W is the story of two school friends Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake. It is also the story of N-W London.

By opening the novel with the following description, Smith makes it clear that N-W London is her main character:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

I think it’s also clear however, that although, in one sense, we could declare N-W Zadie Smith’s love letter to her patch of London, it is a love letter written after a long marriage, decades after the rose tinting has cracked and peeled off.

Following a short scene-setting chapter, Leah (the redhead) is disturbed by the doorbell ringing. Thumping on her door, screaming and crying, is Shar who – after discovering that she and Leah attended the same school and reminiscing about other ex-students – proceeds to scam Leah out of £30. This is one side of life in N-W London. A thread that is further explored through the stories of Felix, who seems to be changing his life following years of drug use and unsuitable women and Nathan, one of the people Shar and Leah remember from school; a young man struggling to carve an identity for himself in a society that doesn’t much care for him.

The thread running parallel to this is that of Keisha Blake. Now Natalie Blake, lawyer. One of Natalie’s functions in the story is to look at what happens if you ‘get out’ of the area/family/class you’re born into. Or indeed, if you really do get out. Perhaps Keisha/Natalie has simply switched one set of fences for another. This idea is further highlighted by the section in which her story (and that of her friendship with Leah) is told through the use of 185 numbered sections, some as short as a sentence, none longer than three pages. Yes, we could conclude that they are ‘chapters’ of Natalie’s life. We might also wonder, however, if this is Natalie playing by numbers, living life by the rules. Where have these rules got her by the present day of the novel?

‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake. (N-W? An unloved hinterland? A place you can’t escape?)

The other prominent theme explored is that of motherhood. Leah openly (although she doesn’t seem to have discussed this with her husband) doesn’t want children. Natalie has three and this is something else – along with Natalie’s new status – that divides the two women. I can’t think of any other novel that has openly discussed the idea of a woman choosing to remain childless. What’s most impressive about this, I think, bar Smith’s decision to tackle what remains a volatile subject, is that she does so without judgement. Something that is also true of the lifestyle choices her characters make. She draws the scene and the people and leaves it for her readers to discuss.

One final thing to mention is the skill with which Smith creates and uses dialogue within the book. There is absolutely no doubt as to where you are:

I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.

‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you, Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid, man!’

Which creates the perfect foil to Natalie’s style of speech:

‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a series practice – do you have any idea how few – ‘

There’s no doubt that this is a serious work of fiction that explores key contemporary ideas not only about N-W London but about the U.K. as a whole. It’s by no means flawless – there are some typographical choices that didn’t work for me and I found the section devoted to Natalie slow in places (although Alan at Words of Mercury disagrees with me on that) – but it’s ambitious and left me with more questions than answers, which is something I like in a novel.

I’m glad N-W has been longlisted and I think it has shortlist potential. The mind boggles as to why the Booker Prize judges chose to omit it from last year’s shortlist though, this is perfect Booker material to my mind.

 

 

 

Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

Alif is a 23-year-old ‘computer geek with girl issues’ living in an unnamed city called the City. All we know of it is that it’s situated somewhere in the Middle East, it’s divided into four districts and it seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to those states involved in the Arab Spring.

As the novel begins, Alif’s lover Intisar – a pure Arab from a wealthy family – has agreed to marry another wealthy Arab, chosen by her father. Both she and Alif know that her father would never consent to her marrying Alif who’s both poor and mixed-ethnicity. Before they part, she says to him:

“Make it so I never see your name again. Please, God, please – I can’t stand it.”

Alif does two things: one, he devises a programme named Tin Sari that he hopes will be able to identify Intisar regardless of whether she’s working from her regular IP address or not. His intention is that it will recognise keystrokes and idiolect and then ensure that, as she wished, she never sees his name online again.  Two, he sends Dina, the girl next door (yes, literally, you can see where that one’s going), to Intisar’s house with a box containing their soiled sheets. Both of these things form the basis of the novel’s plot.

Dina returns from Intisar’s with a book called Alf Yeom wa Yeom. The Thousand and One Days. Moments later, Alif returns to their flats to discover a man standing outside their block. From this point on, he and Dina are on the run. But what does the man want? Revenge for Intisar? Tin Sari? The book? And who can they turn to for help in a city where there are spies everywhere – IRL (in real life) and online.

Alif the Unseen is not my usual sort of read. It has fantastical elements that (pardon the pun) bring a different dimension to the story and are used to further explore the theme of the unseen and whether it is possible to remain anonymous in a world where we have online identities and real life identities. It’s also an exploration of the Arab Spring and the power of the internet to bring down a regime, a regime that might not have the support of the people you might expect. And it’s a love story, as well as being a piece of metafiction about the power of stories.

Yes, it’s another book that tries to pack too much in. Which is unfortunate because, once I got to the second half, I quite enjoyed it. The first half I found difficult partly because there was so much going on and partly because the computer plot line centered around concepts that I struggled to get my head around – particularly the idea of a quantum computer, which I had to resort to Wikipedia to try and understand. (Turned out to be quite a fascinating concept.)

Overall, this is a good book but unfortunately not brilliant. I say unfortunately because learning about other cultures is one of the reasons I read and G. Willow Wilson can write/tell a good tale. I look forward to what she does next.

For someone much more au fait with this (I hate to say it) genre of writing, check out Matt at Reader Dad’s review.

Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

I’m including this review as part of Kim at Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month. You can find out more about that here.

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1940s Australia. Betty Reynolds and her two children – Michael and Hazel – have moved to a small town and are living in a rented house next to a dairy farm.

She came here pregnant with Little Hazel, Michael still in short pants by her side. The people of Cohuna assume that she must have had, at some stage, a husband – perhaps killed in the war? Apart from her work and her children Betty keeps to herself. She wears no rings. When doesn’t correct people when they call her Mrs Reynolds, but she refers to herself as just Betty or, where possible, Michael and Hazel’s mum.

The dairy farmer Harry lives next door. He fancies Betty, although nothing has come of this so far:

Harry hangs far enough back so he can watch the way she moves. He likes her plump forearms, the cardigan pushed up around them; the gilt band of her watch digging into her wrist. He likes the sound of her clothes moving her around her middle. When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – lipstick on her front teeth. He’s been watching all of this, over the years, watching her body age and temper.

He’s also positioned himself as a substitute father to Michael and Little Hazel, often coming over to the house for tea and chatting to Michael about his bird books. Michael also helps Harry out on the farm so when Harry catches Michael masturbating over a copy of Woman and Home, he decides to pass on everything he knows about sex. As he finds it difficult to do this face-to-face, he writes Michael detailed letters which veer between his own personal experiences and biological details:

The sexual organ (I’m talking inside front of underpants here, Michael), breasts (esp. nipples) and lips feature a skin uniquely inflamed with blood. Unlike the ordinary body skin (and male skin), where the blood runs in controlled networks of veins and arteries and sub-veins and sub-arteries (think horticultural drip and pipe irrigation), the blood in the sexual areas is right at the very surface.

Harry’s letters form part of two interwoven themes run throughout the book: nature and writing. Nature is shown through both the birds and animals that inhabit the farm and the town and also the people – Betty, Harry, Michael, Mues – another farmer – and the residents of Acacia Court.

As for the writing, Harry writes to Michael, as mentioned but he also keeps a notebook of poetic observations about the kookaburras that live on his farm – ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’. Hazel also begins a nature diary at school, commenting on the birds that visit her class’s bird table and Betty keeps a notebook of her children’s illnesses and accidents:

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Michael: Burns at stove, pecked by gander, warts, skewered with fork, constipation, infected splinters, ball-bearing lodged in ear, sticky eye, fevers, boils.

Little Hazel: Colic, croup, nappy rash, fever, runny stools, earache.

I enjoyed the book but I’m not sure I got what Tiffany’s point was. Perhaps Little Hazel’s encounter with Mues near the beginning of the book is the closest I’ll get for now. She’s walking to school alone and Mues asks her if she wants to see his pony. His ‘pony’ turns out to be his erect penis.

At that moment Little Hazel understands that she will never, ever, get a Shetland pony. Her life will be no different to everybody else’s – made up of cobbling things together that are misshapen, ill-suited, imperfect. That wanting something badly enough is not enough to get it. And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.

So writing, as we know, is an attempt to make sense of the world, whether through observing humans or animals.

Have you read Mateship with Birds? What did you make of it?

The Red Book – Deborah Copaken Kogan

I was aware of The Red Book when it was published last year – it got a couple of mentions in magazines and Sam Baker (ex-Red editor and now book blogger for Harper’s Bazaar) tweeted about it. I’d even gone as far as to pick a copy up while I was browsing in Waterstones and then put it back down again. I just wasn’t sure about it. And then it was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize, so I read it.

The Red Book of the title is a book produced by Harvard giving an insight into the whereabouts of its graduates. Each member of the year group submits their information – contact details, occupation, spouse/partner, spouse/partner’s occupation, children – every five years after graduation and then the book’s sent out to that year’s cohort. Then there’s a weekend reunion.

We meet our cohort on the twentieth anniversary of their graduation. The story centres around four women who have remained friends throughout that time. Addison is an artist who hasn’t actually created any art in years, instead she spends her time looking after the three children she’s had with her husband Gunner, while he spends his time trying to write his second novel – it’s been 10 years so far. Clover’s recently been made redundant from Lehman Brothers and is desperate for a baby. Her husband Daniel (who we never meet) refuses to have a fertility test. Mia’s busy bringing up a family of four, having abandoned her dream of becoming an actress. Her husband Jonathan is a successful film director. And Jane is a journalist living and working in Paris. She’s coming to terms with the death of her mother and her husband and the infidelity of her current partner Bruno, editor of a French newspaper.

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on and more to come!

Early in the novel, Addison – who’s enormously irritating – is arrested for running a red light. And then put in jail for the $100,000 of unpaid parking tickets she collected during her time at Harvard. This gives Kogan a reason to introduce Bennie, Addison’s former lover, who works for Google and is the only one of the group with enough loose change to pay that sort of fine:

And though both Bennie and her pronoun were abberations in the arc of Addison’s sexual history, what the two had together – although Addison would only be able to understand this in retrospect…was love.

So, we have infidelity, infertility, inability, financial instability, sexuality, mortality and practicalities. It’s a lot to pack into a novel and although the book’s interesting – nothing like a good nosy around other people’s lives – at some points, there’s just too much going on.

Was it worth picking up? Yes, if you enjoy a good saga but I’ll be stunned if it makes the shortlist.

Ignorance – Michèle Roberts

Prize lists always seem to throw up a couple of writers I’ve never heard of before and this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist is no exception. The first of these is Michèle Roberts. When I did a bit of research about her, I was amazed I hadn’t come across her before – she’s written 13 novels, as well as plays, poems, short stories and two non-fiction books. She was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992 with Daughters of the House.

The detail that I seem to have picked up on about Ignorance is that it’s set in WWII and it involves hiding Jews. I hit a point some years ago now when I wondered how many more stories there were to tell about the war. I’m sure that sounds callous to people who lived through it and there will be many individual stories that have never been heard but as a fictional setting it’s been done and done and done again. So, I came to Ignorance wondering how dull it could be and how quickly I could get through it.

I read it in a day. Not because it’s dull because it’s brilliant.

Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angèle Baudry grow up in the town of Ste-Madeleine. At the age of nine they become borders in the local convent school. Jeanne because her mother has been taken into hospital; Marie-Angèle because now Jeanne’s mother is unable to do the Baudry family’s washing, Marie-Angèle’s pregnant mother has found herself unable to cope.

Half rates for the Baudrys, because they were such good Catholics. I [Jeanne] went free. Marie-Angèle had spelled it out: you’re a charity child, other people have to pay your fees. I retorted: but my father was an educated man. Unlike yours!

Anti-Semitism runs through the novel, as you might expect. When Madame Baudry sees Jeanne looking at Monsieur Jacquotet, the Jewish painter who lives next to the convent, she says:

They know how to manage those Jews. We let them in, we let them have jobs. And now, the money that they’ve got squirreled away!

My nose was running. I fished in my pocket for my handkerchief. Maman had no money. Had she ever been a proper Jew?

Jeanne’s mother converted to Catholicism after the death of her husband (Jeanne’s father), sponsored by Madame Bawdry. It seems that she, along with Jeanne, wishes to hide in plain sight, as it were, rather than becoming one of the many Jews we see hidden in sheds and attics later in the book.

The book moves swiftly through Jeanne and Marie-Angèle’s childhood to their early teens. At this point, Marie-Angèle takes over the narration and we are introduced to her father’s friend Maurice. Maurice obtains black market goods and the Baudry’s sell them under the counter in their shop. Marie-Angèle becomes enamoured with him:

He began to take me with him on his business trips to collect food. Throughout that spring of 1942 we worked together. Time began to exist for me again: no longer uncountable weeks of endless war but precise moments of intense life. I marked our outings in my exercise book; precious afternoons whose dates I wanted to encircle in gold. We were heroes, hoodwinking the Germans.

During the war, both girls make naïve choices that will change the course of the rest of their lives.

Rather than being about hiding Jews during WWII, Ignorance is really about women – their relationship with each other and how their circumstances and any choices they might make from their position in life affect their relationships. It’s about class and status and how one person might ignore events while another will be forced into drastic action because of them.

Ignorance is not only a fascinating book, it’s a beautifully written one. Roberts often uses a layering effect where she builds up phrases to create images and emotions:

A chisel drove into my belly, twisted its point round. Tearing flesh. Spill of blood and guts. I wanted to howl, hold in the chisel. Gouged inside, chisel twisting to and fro like polka music.

A technique she uses repeatedly and effectively while still maintaining distinct voices for several different narrators. I’m in awe.

Goodness knows how I’ve missed Michèle Roberts until now. I’m predicting her for the Women’s Prize Shortlist and I’ll be getting my hands on everything she’s written.

Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam

David Lamb is 54. His marriage has recently ended; he’s been having an affair with a younger colleague at work; he’s just buried his father.

After the funeral, he stands by a ‘bus-stop bench’ in a parking ‘lot between a liquor barn and a dollar store’ and contemplates ‘the story that was his life even just a summer ago’:

Granite counter-tops, beveled glass gilded from the outside by light at the end of the day; two fingers of gin in a tumbler; newspapers and mail piling up on the island in the kitchen; Cathy in the gold eyeglasses trimming the tapered ends of the French green beans; Elizabeth Draper’s blue necklace of tiny glass beads in his silk-lined pants pocket; Linnie ringing his cell phone; his cuff links flashing every time he lifts his glass; a fax coming in from Wilson; nightly news from the flat-screen in the sunken living room; John Draper wanting him out on the driveway or in the garage for a beer; Cathy’s sister bleary-eyed and wrinkled pulling up in her Volvo: hi, David. All of that, and what was there now to hold him up?

As he stands there, he’s approached by a girl ‘in a lopsided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-colored sandals studded with rhinestones…her stomach stuck out like a dirty spotted white sheet. It was grotesque. It was lovely.’ She has been dared by her friends to ask him for a cigarette. He gives her one and in exchange, decides to play a trick on her friends. Grabbing the girl by the arm, he pushes her into his car, making it look as though he is kidnapping her.

From this early point, Nadzam shows us the state of David Lamb’s psyche and the games he likes to play. He checks that the girl’s unhurt and tells her he’s taking her home but then:

He yelled at her like he thought a father would have done.
“I could be taking you somewhere to kill you. You know that?”
… She was terrified. Well, good. It was true what he’d said. He could be taking her to kill her. He could do anything he wanted.

From a reader’s point of view he is also terrifying. Does he want to kill her? Abuse her? Is he just lonely and therefore, misguided in his choice of company? Does he want to be a father figure to her?

The following day, Lamb returns to the bus stop at the same time as the day before. Tommie (the girl) appears, upset because her friends didn’t care that she’d been taken away by an older stranger. Lamb lies about his name – he tells her it’s Gary – and then takes her for lunch. We’re told briefly that ‘they meet ten times in the next week’ and then Lamb suggests a trip to his cabin in Nebraska. It’s this trip that makes up the majority of the book.

And then, just as they’re preparing to leave, we learn that Tommie is 11.

He inhaled. Christ. He’d taken her for thirteen at least. Eleven. That was closer to five years old than it was to eighteen.

It doesn’t stop him though, although he does tell Tommie that she needs to think carefully about whether she wants to go on the trip and gives her opportunity to leave. Or so it seems. There are many moments in the book where it appears that David is being reasonable, that he is just protecting her from a home and school life that might not be that great and there are also many moments where it’s apparent that he lusts after her, where he’s predatory and downright scary.

Nadzam plays the reader well here. By telling the tale from Lamb’s point of view, we’re made to feel as though we might understand him, that he’s a character who should deserve our sympathy and then that’s snatched from us by a word or a deed.  What’s also very well done is the restraint that Nadzam shows as a writer. She gives us glimpses of Lamb’s behaviour but there are several points where you’re left to flesh out what’s just happened, creating a more disturbing picture that the one that could’ve been spelled out to us and keeping us reading a story that otherwise might have been too much for most readers to stomach.

This is a taut, gripping book that well deserves its place on the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist.

 

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born, strangled by the umbilical cord. No doctor is present at the house due to the snow that has fallen and closed the road.

11th February 1910, Ursula Todd is born and lives. The doctor arriving just in time, before snow closed the roads, and cutting the umbilical cord wrapped around Ursula’s neck that would surely have killed her.

Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, a girl, and subsequently a woman, destined to live her life over and over, sometimes in a slightly different way, other times featuring more drastic changes. It is about how one moment can change a lifetime.

‘Why is everything an “adventure” with you?’ Sylvie asked irritably to Izzie.
‘Because life is an adventure, of course.’
‘I would say it was more of an endurance race,’ Sylvie said. ‘Or an obstacle course.’

Ursula’s lives are populated by her family – judgmental mother Sylvie; stalwart father Hugh; flighty and extravagant aunt Izzie; superior and insufferable older brother Maurice; big sister Pamela, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy – and a wide cast of friends, lovers (of several family members) and co-workers.

It is credit to Atkinson’s incredibly vivid writing that you become attached to these people time and again and that the structure, rather than create difficulties or disjointedness in the reader’s understanding, brings us to a deeper knowledge of Ursula and her motives.

I wondered whether the repetitive structure, in particular, Ursula’s many rebirths on the same day, would become tedious. But Atkinson – mindful of her audience – tells the events of the day from a slightly different point in time or indeed, a different point of view each time. In later events that are revisited and played differently, cross points are created so we build up a full picture of what will always be and what might have been if X had happened or Y hadn’t.

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Life After Life is a very difficult book to talk about without spoiling anything (as I’ve seen several reviews and articles do recently, and not just for this book) as there are events that happen and points where the writing is so vivid that I want to talk about them. However, as a reader, I hate a good book being spoilt so I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply point out that my urge to discuss this book points to it being very very good indeed. A cert for the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist or I’ll eat my (signed) hardback copy.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

(A post in which I make no mention of Hilary Mantel. She’ll be on the shortlist. I haven’t read it yet.)

So, while most of us were asleep in bed last night, the people behind the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) were busy announcing their longlist. It has 20 – 20! – books on it. Alex in Leeds has already written a very astute piece on the length of the shortlist here. I, like a fool, am going to attempt to read – and post full reviews – on as many as I can before the shortlist’s announced on April 16th.

I’m delighted Sheila Heti’s made the list with a book that people seem to love or hate. I loved it. You can read my thoughts on it here. I also, mostly, loved A.M Holmes’ May We Be Forgiven, which is a statement of contention for the title of Great American Novelist. Surely she’ll make the shortlist. My review is here. Francesca Segal’s The Innocents won the Costa First Novel award and I reviewed that here. It’s a cracking first novel.

I’m also thrilled to see Kate Atkinson on the list – she’s a novelist I’ve long admired and I’ve been hearing great things about Life After Life. I’m going to her reading at Huddersfield Literature Festival on Friday night, so that should be my weekend reading sorted.

I’ve also read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette (pre-blog). Gone Girl kept me up late two nights running while I finished it. It’s taut and gripping with several sharp twists. Semple’s debut is fun and feisty with a big heart. It tells the tale of Bernadette’s disappearance – mentally and then physically – through emails, notes, letters and reports collated by her daughter Bee. I enjoyed it a lot.

From the rest of the list, I’ve had Zadie Frost’s NW, Shani Boianjiou’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb, and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen sitting in my (physical and e) tbr pile for a while now. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into these.

I’m sure the rest of the list will bring me to some great books that I might not have read otherwise. From their blurbs, I’m already hoping I can find the time to read Emily Perkins’ The Forrests, Ros Barker’s The Marlowe Papers, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s The Red Book and Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds. It looks as though my reading’s going to be completely female dominated for the next month or so – no bad thing with this sort of variety on offer though.

The Longlist:

Kitty Aldridge A Trick I Learned From Dead Men

Kate Atkinson Life After Life

Ros Barber The Marlowe Papers

Shani Boianjiu The People of Forever are Not Afraid

Gillian Flynn Gone Girl

Sheila Heti How Should A Person Be?

AM Homes May We Be Forgiven

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

Deborah Copaken Kogan The Red Book

Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies

Bonnie Nadzam Lamb

Emily Perkins The Forrests

Michèle Roberts Ignorance

Francesca Segal The Innocents

Maria Semple Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Elif Shafak Honour

Zadie Smith NW

ML Stedman The Light Between Oceans

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

G Willow Wilson Alif the Unseen