I was five years old when I learned how to roller skate. I remember being all knock-kneed, feet shooting off opposite directions, and falling down countless times. It took me a while, but after gritting my teeth and being super determined that I would master this new skill, I slowly began to make wobbly circles around the big skating rink. Practice makes perfect, right? What if you could apply that to reincarnation—living life after life? What if every life you experience is a mere practice run until you fulfill your singular destiny? That’s the general theme in the two books—Life After Life, by Katherine Atkinson and The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough—that I read for the Survival Book Battle.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, wowed me with its, let me quote the 10th Doctor Who, “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ... stuff.” Case in point, the main character, Ursula Todd is born and dies before she can draw her first breath, then in the next chapter, she is again born on that same cold night, lets out a strident wail and proceeds to live her life that the reader, given the omniscient narration, will regard as unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, over and over again, in different ways. Every life has a similar trajectory, but the choices that Ursula makes dictates her fate. After a while, Ursula begins to sense déjà vu and begins to make unconscious, yet conscious choices, to control how her life unfolds—with the idea that as she “practices” living, she can achieve her ultimate destiny—which might have been to kill Hitler to change the outcome of the World War II—more on that in a bit. The writing is beautiful, the story is engaging, and the setting of early twentieth century England is clearly drawn out. The deaths that Ursula goes through are tragic and at times rather matter of fact, yet there’s a darkly comedic undertone, in the manner of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies. Life After Life’s strength lies in the exploration of the different pathways that a life can take.
While I was most impressed with the book, there were a few things that stuck in my craw. The ending was a bit vague—it’s not made clear on whether she killed off Hitler. At the beginning of the book, the reader is given a chapter where Hitler and Ursula are sitting at a table sharing a German pastry and a failed assassination attempt occurs shortly after that, thus building up expectation that her grand purpose in life is to kill Hitler. I guess, in a larger sense, we do not have to have a purpose to Ursula dying and being born over and over again. Essentially the book’s focus is on tweaking your life over and over again until you fulfill your ultimate purpose. But in some way, with this open ended storytelling style, I feel like the potential of the novel was never fully achieved. It was a bit repetitive and at times a bit too meandering—could have used some editing.
The other book I read was Martha Brockenbrough’s Game of Love and Death. In this historical novel, with a fantasy aspect, "Love" and "Death" are actual beings who select players in a millennia-old game. In the past, Death has always won, but can Love finally prevail when it comes to Henry and Flora? The story takes place in the 1930’s in the Pacific Northwest. Flora Saudade is an African American woman sings in the jazz clubs of Seattle and dreams of being the next Amelia Earhart. Henry Bishop lives with his adoptive family—wealthy in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and his future assured. Through Flora and Henry’s struggles, Love and Death learn a valuable lesson with the highest stakes ever. There was a great deal that I liked about this book. The book was especially strong in the side plots and world building. We witness Ethan, a supporting character, struggling with his homosexuality in a time when it meant terrible ruin to be his true self. The pervasiveness of racism and the engaging descriptions of the jazz era, the history of female aviation and the Hoovervilles. I love seeing Love and Death as allegorical characters; there’s a certain literary power in seeing feelings and forces being personified, especially with Death. In sense, Brockenbrough’s Death reminded me of Milton’s Death in Paradise Lost—an ever hungry and ever unsatisfied character.
As wonderful as the sideplots were, they were overshadowed by the “Game”—which resembled a vaguely drawn out chess game with no real purpose other than for Love and Death to duke it out. I never felt like I was given the reason as to exactly why Love and Death needed to be locked in eternal battle with one another. Since the “Game” is an important element of this book’s plot, it should have been stronger and more clearly drawn out. Another issue that I had a problem with was the insta-love that occurs in this book. Was it only because of the “Game” that Henry and Flora fell in love with each other? Would they have even met each other if not for Love and Death? This made a book that could have had crossover appeal in both YA fiction and Adult fiction merely a YA book (not that that’s a bad thing, it just means the scope is more narrow).
So, shall I get to the point—which one is the winner????
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson all the way.