Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Costa Book Awards 2013: Kate Atkinson deserves her triumph

Kate Atkinson's Costa Novel award for Life After Life shows that great writing can also be entertaining

Author Kate Atkinson
Author Kate Atkinson Photo: Andrew Crowley

Worse, she has used the crime genre to examine the unpredictability of human motivation, and the waywardness of life. This I fear has until now put her beyond the pale as far as the judges of literary prizes were concerned.

Hurrah, then, for the panel that has pronounced on the Costa Book Award in the novel category. They have given Atkinson the nod ahead of novels from Bernadine Bishop, Maggie O’Farrell and Evie Wyld, giving her the award for the first time since her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum won in 1995, when the prize was called the Whitbread.

It is a particularly thrilling accolade because Life After Life is probably her best book since then, complex both structurally and morally, combining formal experimentation with an involving plot. Its basic premise is to imagine that we have endless chances of living our lives, parallel paths through the universe, where fractional decisions or fleeting moments decide our fate and the fates of those around us. As one character says: “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Its heroine Ursula Todd takes many journeys through what Atkinson calls “the land of begin again”, living a life in various guises. Around this, Atkinson offers a detailed social history of life in Britain and Germany before, during and after the Second World War.
Life After Life is many things: in part a tribute to England and the resilience of English character under the stress of wartime; in part a love story about the relationship between siblings; in part a book about the art of reading itself, which uses the expectation of its readers to determine and defy the twists and turns of plot and character.

It is a wonderful read and an exhilarating experiment, all wrapped up in a prose style that has a simplicity and precision that would make both Jane Austen and George Orwell whoop with joy. It is brilliant news that it has won the prize. 

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