Do we all know how the Tournament of Books works by now? If not, read up about it here. Do we all know what I do with it? If not, you can check it out here. Do you remember when we were incredibly inappropriate with it at work? Yea, that’s here too. Steven got really dark about it all and is still out, he basically refuses to talk about ToB at all, ever. You burnt him bad. So for now you’re stuck with me.
Here we go.
Here’s the thing: I wasn’t expecting to like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. It has such a lame trade cover (in Australia) and was all ‘I mix WWII history with a wacky multiple-life conceit!’ I was expecting to like Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel. It has a great title and sounds fascinating: a cult that cures loneliness, elaborate covert-ops spies, North Korea!
But Atkinson’s removed, proper British tone was the perfect foil to the annoying-on-paper premise of Life After Life. That is, Ursula Todd is born one snowy morning and instantly dies. Then she is born again and this time manages to survive until early childhood… but Ursula Todd somehow manages to be born and reborn, changing the situations around her to survive, without quite knowing how, why, or even what’s going on. This strange occurrence allows Atkinson to thoroughly explore the early 20th century and what it may hold for a determined and clever woman. Scenes of domestic violence are particularly harrowing, as are those clearing bodies of buildings after the Blitz. Some bits were anachronistic and weird (Ursula’s psychologist seems uncharacteristically sympathetic for the period and the bits in Germany didn’t feel as right as the British stuff) but Life After Life was compulsively readable, full of interesting and complex characters and so detailed and lush it often made the history come to life.
Unfortunately, Woke Up Lonely never made it much past farce. There was so much going on! While paranoid Thurlow Dan stumbled along as an unlikely cult leader there were insane costumes and subterfuge from his ex-wife Esme, trying to keep tabs on him while keeping him out of harm’s way. Then there’s the armed faction of Thurlow’s cult, Esme’s unlikely and deliberately incompetent recruits and their sad lives, Thurlow and Esme’s poor, poor daughter (I mean really the emotional damaged caused by these too was not in any way amusing or forgivable) and this is before we get to North and the subterranean world that exists under Cincinnati. The whole thing was trying too hard for quirky and cute, skipping by plausible characterisation and interesting social issues and WHY THE HELL THERE IS A CITY UNDER CINCINNATI. It barely made sense, barely held together, and then to what end anyway? The stakes always seemed too low to care or too high to be credible. (Did anyone else think it felt like Where’d You Go, Bernadette? on acid?)
Here’s another thing: I was expecting the worst today. It is no secret that last year ToB had some calls that I thought were way off and then Judge Brooks is not an author I’m awfully fond of. But I don’t disagree with a single thing she wrote and, as a writer, she was clearly more capable of articulating some thoughts than I am. (Like that one just there.) On Life After Life, for example: ‘The device ceases to look like a cheap trick, and actually becomes a masterful and transcendent way to deal with the multiple horrors of the London Blitz.’ Thank you! Yes! On Woke Up Lonely: ‘So what if Maazel’s cult leader is so wet and whiny that no one would follow him out of a burning building? So what if his supposedly entrancing speeches bring to mind fortune cookie inserts rewritten by semiotics majors? So what if no one like Esme actually exists in the world of national security? So what if her prosthetics are impossible?’ And then, ‘[Maazel] wields words with the breathtaking deftness of a chainsaw juggler. But—and I asked myself the same question the first time I saw someone juggle chainsaws—what for?’ I KNOW MAN! That’s what I was trying to say!
A promising start to ToB X. May there be many more worthy wins and many crushings of mediocre books!