Tag Archives: World War II

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Five hundred-forty-four pages. Published by Hachette.

Yogi Berra uttered the redundant phrase, “it’s déja vu all over again,” and made it funny. There’s nothing fun about reading author Kate Atkinson’s book about déja vu all over again. Other books and movies based on the idea; The Time Traveler’s Wife and Groundhog Day come to mind, do a better job of making the time-shift paradigm enjoyable.

life-after-lifeIn Life After Life, the main character, Ursula Todd, is born on February 11, 1910. She dies at birth only to be born again and again on the exact night with different life outcomes the result of each re-birth. The book is not quite about reincarnation as it is about getting to relive your life over and over again until you get it right.

As Ursula, the precocious child in an upper-class home in the English countryside grows up, she is either raped in her home and lives with the gut-wrenching consequences or slaps her would-be rapist avoiding any second encounter; she either saves a young neighbour from a sexual predator, nearly becomes one of his victims or helps search for the missing girl; Ursula either becomes a confidant of Eva Braun or shoots Hitler herself before the war even begins.

Atkinson writes the story in a way that pivotal occasions in Ursula’s life are re-written over and over again with seemingly small but significant differences. For example, an encounter with two old ladies on a stairwell is re-written at least three times with the identical descriptions and conversations with one slight difference each time. Yet, the end results are the same. This section of the book feels like it was cut and pasted over and over again. I found it annoying to re-read.

Ursula not only has the ability to be re-born at the moment of her birth, she can jump out of windows as a teen and have a building fall upon her as an adult, die and come back again. This is where the book got murky, I wasn’t sure if Ursula’s varied deaths meant that she had to go back to her moment of birth and start over and ultimately, I didn’t know which of lives was her final one. Or, does she keep re-living her life forever?

This should have been an intriguing read full of what-ifs and if-onlys but despite its numerous awards, wasn’t.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Five-hundred-forty-four pages, Scribner.

 

f_doerr_allthelight_fMy first thought was, not another book about war. I seem to have read so many for my book club lately. However, just a handful of pages into this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, pre-conceived notions evaporated and I became immersed in Doerr’s vivid storytelling.

This is the tale of a blind French girl and a gifted German boy whose lives intersect during the war. Marie-Laure is a young girl living in Paris with her father at the cusp of Germany’s invasion of France. Six-year-old Marie-Laure is losing her eyesight as her single father does his best to raise her in a world cruel to those with disabilities. He builds a miniature reconstruction of their neighbourhood so she can find her way. Marie-Laure’s blindness doesn’t deter her curious mind and growing intellect. Her days are spent at the Museum of Natural History where her father is a talented locksmith.

The German invasion has the pair scrambling for the relative safety of the walled town of St. Malo where her great uncle lives. Her father appears to be entrusted with an item of extreme cultural importance and monetary value. He hides this object in an intricate wooden puzzle box and takes it with them to St. Malo. Marie-Laure becomes the owner of the puzzle box when her father disappears. The arduous journey to St. Malo is the beginning of an innocent girl’s recruitment into the dangerous resistance movement that at turns risks her life and saves it.

As Marie-Laure’s marvelous story unfolds, we read a parallel tale about a young boy named Werner who lives in an orphanage in Germany. He develops the ability to fix and make radios. His talents at first rescue him from a life of poverty, the destiny that awaits all the children at the orphanage. Gradually, his eagerness to please and brilliant mind end up being harnessed by the brutal Third Reich. Chapter by chapter, events in each character’s life bring them one step closer to their fateful encounter.

Simply told and elegantly written, this tale seized me by the heart as it drew images of goodness, evil and the shifting margin that separates them. Though Marie-Laure is blind for most of the novel, she sees more than others. The ability to sense good and bad saves her when not only does the war turn up on her doorstep but forces itself inside.

While touched by Marie-Laure’s narrative, I was sickened by Werner’s transformation from sympathetic and endearing boy to a Nazi soldier tasked with unspeakable missions. Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories equally crushed my heart and made my spirit soar.