I’m half-way through Jane Feaver’s An Inventory of Heaven, due out in paperback next month. It’s far from a bad book, although it does explore the rather well trodden territory of childhood and dark secrets, but I’ve been keeping company with Haruki Murakami and Kate Atkinson for most of this month and so perhaps have been spoiled for anything less than excellent.
Murakami’s 1Q84 stretches over more than 1,200 pages and is spread across three books but it gripped me throughout. If pressed, you could probably boil it down to boy meets girl, albeit in a rather strange way, then both spend the next 20 years trying to find each other again but of course there’s much more to it than that. Any journey with Murakami is a surreal one and by the end of it I had begun to feel that it was more akin to Alice in Wonderland with its entrance and exit from the strange two-mooned world of 1Q84 than it was to George Orwell’s 1984, the year in which it is set. Last week Murakami’s new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in Japan. Readers queued overnight and over 1 million copies have already been sold. Let’s hope his English translators are hard at work on it.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is also somewhat surreal with its replaying of the birth, life and death of its main character, Ursula Todd, each time with differing results. Readers accustomed to the straightforward linear narratives of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books may be a little taken aback by this but those who have read her second novel, Human Croquet, will be more familiar with her use of alternative realities. In Life After Life it’s more like alternative history, clear from the start when Ursula puts her hand in her bag pulls out a gun and says quietly “Führer, für Sie”. In an ambiguity typical of the novel we’re left not knowing whether the single shot fired hits Ursula or her target. Events in Ursula’s, sometimes very short, life affect the outcome for her friends, family and possibly the entire world, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but often dramatically. Beginning in 1910 when Ursula is born, several of her lives take the narrative through both the First and Second World Wars with sombre often harrowing descriptions of a bomb-devastated London, but there’s also much humour in the book. It’s a novel that could have fallen flat on its face sending its readers screaming to their bookshelves looking for something else but Atkinson handles it all so deftly that the result is a fine piece of work thoroughly deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list.