The ABC’s of Literature: Kate Atkinson

Last week, I wrote about an author who switches effortlessly between genres, and this week, I am focusing on an author with a similarly unique talent. Kate Atkinson’s works cover a wide variety of genres, whether it be a coming-of-age story, a crime novel or a work of historical fiction set during the Second World War. Atkinson’s debut, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” actually starts with its protagonist being conceived, and her subsequent novels have only continued to be wildly inventive. Her books are original without being pretentious, her character are literary while remaining real and her writing is absolutely distinctive.

My favorite Atkinson novel, although a slightly daunting place to start, is “Life After Life.” On a snowy winter night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and dies almost instantly, strangled by the umbilical cord around her neck. Then, on an another snowy winter night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born again and lives. Over the course of the novel, she dies over and over again and is then brought back to life to explore another path she might have taken. It is a spectacularly complex concept to represent, especially as the people and ideas around Ursula echo themselves from life to life, sometimes different and sometimes the same, and as Atkinson follows path after path and death after death. Yet somehow she manages to pull it off without a hitch every time. For such a complicated novel, it is surprisingly easy to follow, perhaps because of how mesmerizing the story is. It is not only the originality of the plot but also the richness and depth of the characters that keep the story engaging through each life, from Ursula to her pilot brother Teddy to her free-spirited aunt Izzie. These are such human characters, each carefully developed through dialogue and little clever bits of detail that ensure each one leaves their mark on the book. The reader ends up hoping quite desperately that Ursula’s next life will be better than the next and urgently turning the pages in order to find out. Best of all, there is a companion novel about Ursula’s brother Teddy, “A God in Ruins,” that further explores the horrors of war and the act of recovering from it.

In a different but equally excellent vein, Atkinson has also written a series of novels about Jackson Brodie, the private detective with the singular ability to attract bad luck, a taste for heartbroken country music and a string of interconnected cases. The series begins with “Case Histories,” where Jackson investigates three cold cases, one decades-old, that are connected in surprising ways. If you are searching for exciting action sequences or bad guys led away in handcuffs, these might not be the mysteries for you. But if you are looking for characters who are almost painfully real and for beautiful writing, these books are perfect. Atkinson is particularly skilled at close third-person perspective, infusing even a description of people waiting in line with the personality of the character observing them. Her books may showcase both the best and the worst of humanity, but Atkinson’s writing is definitely some of the best the literary world has to offer.