Atkinson Life after Life

Random House, 2013

The slippery question of time is often posed on the page. And with books, it’s different.

In music, listeners are engaged at a pace dictated by the composer’s notation, beats counted as the bars pass, the audience arriving synchronously at the end of the piece.

Photographs and paintings freeze a frame, even while the viewers’ experience of that moment stretch alongside like a cat along the top of a radiator in winter.

But W.D. Wetherall reminds readers that “a story isn’t about a moment in time; a story is about the moment in time”.

In just a handful of pages, a writer like Alice Munro can spiral or zigzag, can hopscotch or skip throug and across years to frame that specific moment.

Stories like “Fits”  and “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” are concise studies of a skilled writer’s handling of time within a narrative.

Some writers, like Allie Brosh, try to put it into pictures and words (see image below).

Recent novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries devote hundreds of pages to the matter.

On the surface, these novels appear to have different preoccupations, but they are fundamentally concerned with engaging the reader in different experiences of time on the page.

Life after Life presents Ursula, named for a bear, a character with a very peculiar relationship with time. Her cycle mimics the seasons, moving from hibernation to emergence and from life to death, as the narrative returns to the moment in time upon which her existence turns.

Season after season, the return to the burrow is relentless but irregular, as the number of births and deaths increases; readers are repeatedly recast back to February 11th, 1910, compelled to follow Ursula’s next attempt to emerge and thrive.

“She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mould and mushroom of autumn.”

Like the designs I drew as a girl with my Spirograph set, Ursula’s story moves away from the centre and returns, sometimes a journey as quick as a breath, before she might be strangled by the umbilical cord around her neck, or for the arc of a few years, until she is pulled beneath the waves at the shore.

Time expands and collapses; readers stumble and lunge. The novel considers “gut-achingly, painfully physical” maternal love, “fairy tales of wronged princesses who aved themselves”, the “enormity of war”, a quest for “the restoration of justice to the world, disappointments in love, and telescopic views of beloved dogs and foxes. But ultimately it is the bear’s subjective experience of time which entangles readers.

Ursula wrestles fiercely with time, learns to recognize and identify what cannot be known. “There was always a second before the siren started when she was aware of a sound as yet unheard. It was like an echo, or rather the opposite of an echo. An echo came afterwards, but was there a word for what came before?”

Luminaries Catton

McClelland & Stewart, 2013

In The Luminaries, the story also revolves around the moment. Eleanor Catton’s movement around the moment is complex, but the moment is the focal point, which marks a man’s death, much as Ursula’s point of return is rooted in an instant of either sustaining or relinquishing a breath.

Part One is called “A Sphere within a Sphere” and opens with an astrological chart for January 27th, 1866, with significant characters’ names appearing in the relevant houses.

Each of the novel’s twelve parts shifts in time, and each begins with another chart which represent the changed positions of the planets, sequentially, and the characters associated with them.

Each of the novel’s subsequent parts occupies half the number of pages afforded to the preceding part.

And, so, readers spend decreasing amounts of time on the parts of the story as they read on, even as the total amount of time they have spent on the novel has steadily increased. And with more than eight hundred pages in the novel, the amount of reading time is substantial.

The Luminaries is meticulously crafted; Eleanor Catton has excised imperfections and imposed regimental order, although there is not a single straight line, only the curlicues of memory.

“We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.”

When these novels are distinctly different is surrounding the question of voice.

Kate Atkinson’s earlier novels, including her popular Jackson Brodie mysteries, are often rooted in character; Ursula is the stand-out feature of Life after Life.

Readers without an attachment to her will be frustrated by the sense of whiplash, made dizzy by the snapping and circling around the moment, so the author concentrates on creating a credible and relatable character.

In contrast, Eleanor Catton does not create her characters with an eye to readers’ investment in them.

Her descriptions are acute and full-bodied, and they are numerous; there is a chart of characters with related houses and influences to which readers can refer. Readers can readily distinguish between individuals, but can cozy up to none.

“The girl was uncommonly striking—she moved with a weary, murderous languor, like a disaffected swan—but she was rather more volatile in her tempers than Nilssen liked in a girl, and her beauty (in fact Nilssen would not call her beautiful; he reserved that word for virgins and angelic forms) was too knowing for his taste. She was also an opium eater, a habit that showed in her features as a constant blur, and in her manner as a fathomless exhaustion—“

The element of distance inherent in the story’s style and structure is striking. The predominant voice is unquestionably the storyteller’s and the overarching concern is a desire to comprehend the truth, to deliberately explore the details of time and space until that truth is realized.

Allie Brosh Time Diagram

Image from Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half (2013)

Eleanor Catton’s debut novel The Rehearsal was similarly preoccupied with the need to assemble a version of truth. The contemporary high school setting contrasts with 19th-century New Zealand goldfields, but the sense of a puzzling-out of what has happened is consistent.

This is consistent, too, with Kate Atkinson’s mysteries, but Life after Life poses a series of ever-shifting questions rather than a single resolution.

Just as The Luminaries provides a series of interlocking narratives with as many perspectives as characters.

What are readers to do?

“‘Understand it like this,’ he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English, and approximate the noun. ‘Around. And then back again, beginning.”

And, so, there are stories without endings. Simultaneously time-soaked and time-less.

For story-lovers, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Have you read either of these books? Do you have another favourite “time” story?

Companion Reads:
Claudia Hammond’s Time Warped (NF, on the subjective experience of time)
Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am (lots of tense-play)
Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (in which a natural disaster slightly tilts the earth and the 24-hour-day is lengthened by microseconds and the world unravels)