Every now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.
Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.
The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.
Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.
The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.
I’d been waiting ages for this to come out in paperback and finally got my hands on it thanks to the dwindling but sufficient funds on my Christmas ‘Waterstones’ Gift Card. I have nothing against hardbacks; other than they are cumbersome to hold, won’t fit in my handbag and take up too much space on my shelves!
Atkinson’s last four works have featured Scottish detective Jackson Brodie and combine a wry sense of humour with a contemporary setting and plot lines. ‘Life after Life’ has the trademark observational humour but most of the story takes place between 1910 and the end of WW2. Ursula is born to parents Sylvie and Hugh at the start of the book, but fails to take her first breath. Presumably realising that this inauspicious beginning would not herald much of a story, Atkinson unfurls a careful plot which sees Ursula born again, at the same time and place, into the same family. This time she lives a little longer, but before long the darkness falls and she begins her life cycle again. There is no explanation of how this happens, but to get the best from the novel, I discovered it was easiest just to accept that it does! With each incarnation, although the central characters in Ursula’s life remain the same, her circumstances and experiences vary. The novel begins and ends with the same scene, where Ursula (with the benefit of hindsight) has the chance to completely change the course of European history.
It’s a fascinating premise, how differently we might all lead our lives if we had more than one opportunity to get it right. The prose is warm, artfully observed and at times very funny, at others very touching. More than one of Ursula’s deaths moved me to tears, and the scenes set in London during the bombings are vividly recounted. Yet somehow the book is lacking. At just over 600 pages, it feels overly long, and the cyclical nature of Ursula’s life necessitates reading the same scenarios several times. Obviously! Many of the reader reviews of the book have expressed the same sentiment – ‘I usually love Kate Atkinson , but …’ which sums up my view of ‘Life after Life’.
Of course, in my next lifetime, I may choose to feel differently about it.