My name is Ruby. I am a precious jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox.
Well, just this year, I’ve done several reading marathons. I read four Philip Roth books, seven or eight Saki books and three Neil Gaiman books. Well, time for a lady to get the marathon treatment. All of Kate Atkinson’s books have been on my list of books to read for a long time, so when I decided to get her newest book, Life After Life, I decided to just read her entire bibliography, currently nine books. This is her debut and it’s a hell of a debut.
It’s the story of Ruby Lennox and her emotionally tempestuous life and her equally tempestuous relationships with her mother, her sisters, her father, etc. The book begins, in an obvious nod to Tristram Shandy, with Ruby’s conception; “I exist!” she bellows as the first line of the book, narrating before her father has even rolled off of her mother. Pro-choicers, read on; it’s a masterpiece even if the first chapter does disconcertingly posit the ability of zygotes to speak in complete, and surprisingly witty, sentences. Throughout the book there are also scattered stories about the previous generations of the Lennox family and these are good, often heart-breakingly sad, but it’s Ruby Lennox and her sharp, funny voice that kept me devouring this book. Ruby herself is astoundingly well characterized, but so are the people that surround her. Mother Bunty, younger sister Gillian and older sister Patricia in particular are all wonderful, fully drawn characters, living and breathing on the page. The book is really strange in its tone. I can’t recall a book that I’ve had exactly this reaction to, but if you ask me if this book is funny, I would say, “Oh, it’s HILARIOUS.” And if you ask me if it’s sad, I would say, “Oh, it’s DEVASTATING.” There’s one really amazing bit where I had a huge, huge belly laugh and then less than two pages later there was a paragraph of such incredible sorrow and darkness that I literally inhaled sharply with the pain of it. Anyway, it’s an astonishing book. I really can’t wait for the next one; I’m thinking this Atkinson marathon was a good idea. 4 stars.
tl;dr – astounding debut is a magical, hilarious, sorrowful story of a family down the generations; characterization is nothing short of amazing and Atkinson’s prose is a living thing. 4 stars.