'Life After Life' Bears Witness to the Future

Kate Atkinson’s emphasis here lay not with romantic love but with war, and she uses this book as an opportunity to stay, if only in imagination, some of the hands that killed millions.

Life After Life

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Length: 544 pages
Author: Kate Atkinson
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-04

Life After Life moves readers from detective Jackson Brodie, author Kate Atkinson’s appealing, bestselling hero of her past four novels, to a new, equally appealing heroine, the very English Ursula Todd, born 11 February 1910. Parents Sophie and Hugh have no idea their third child is unusual. Yet Ursula’s birthdate serves as Life After Life’s touchstone: each visitation to this day sees Sophie in bed without benefit of doctor or midwife. Her sole assistance a terrified teenaged maid.

Yet the scene alters a bit each time. Sometimes Ursula arrives blue, the cord wrapped round her neck. She dies, is saved by Sophie, by the doctor, by luck. Or she never draws breath. Each life follows a different trajectory.

Lionel Shriver’s The Post Birthday World and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife are recent examples of novels addressing lives lived multiply. Novelists ply their trade in the fields of 'what if', but Shriver, Niffenegger, and now Atkinson push the concept to its limits. Only Shriver’s Irina is mercifully oblivious as her creator alternates chapters between lives and loves: which man is best for Irina? In the end, it’s a toss-up, but the primary conflict is neither déjà vu nor jamais vu.

Niffenegger’s 2003 bestseller, also a love story, is considerably more harrowing, as narrator Henry is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder, an illness that sends him catapulting through time. Henry has no control over his situation, yet has perfect recall of his travels. He suffers both physically and mentally from his journeys, as does his wife, Clare.

Ursula Todd, however, experiences profound déjà vu, often moving her to behave oddly in contexts that, in other lives, would be appropriate. In childhood, this makes Ursula prone to inexplicable announcements and behaviors, concerning Sophie enough to take the child to a psychologist, the sympathetic Dr. Kellet. Kellet alone sees the truth, or parts of it.

Some aspects of Ursula’s life remain stable through time. Her relationship with her siblings is more than an expert depiction of family life; it’s an emotional exploration of the deep relationships possible between siblings, in this case, Ursula’s elder sister, Pamela, and their younger brother, Teddy. These loving bonds contrast harshly with the Todd children’s feelings for their eldest brother, Maurice. Maurice is a cruel, brutish child who grows into a callow, greedy adult. In a gesture of Atkinsonian humor, Maurice becomes a banker.

Where The Post-Birthday World and The Time Traveler’s Wife focus on romantic love, Atkinson, whose characters tend toward failed romances, turns her pitiless eye on war, offering a gruesome, unsparing account of war’s ravages, physical and psychological.

Ursula is a child during WWI. Hugh joins the ranks despite Sophie’s anger. Apart from Hugh’s absence and slightly lesser meals—cook Mrs. Glover is no Nigella at the best of times—the immediate family is intact. But friends and neighbors are less fortunate. Without giving away the plot, there are numerous fatalities close to home, disfiguring injuries, and men suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these poor souls can be found in Dr. Kellet’s office, where they are tenderly ministered to by his nurse. Others, who survive head injuries or gassing long before IED’s or TBI’s, depart strong and healthy only to return hopelessly brain damaged, their lives effectively over.

Given the lives she’s living, Ursula’s teen years are marked by trauma and joy. Young men are a source of joys and terrors; notably, Atkinson makes Ursula’s first crush, Benjamin Cole, a Jew.Ursula’s traumas are mitigated by Hugh’s sister, the audacious Izzie, whose fondness for the finer things, including men, gets her into occasional scrapes. Yet Izzie proves unexpectedly self-sufficient and stalwart in emergencies, the sort of aunt many teenagers long for. Izzie rescues Ursula in many ways, in many of her lives, neither of them the wiser.

Always gifted at characterization, Atkinson’s powers are only increasing. In Hugh we have a surprisingly accepting, affectionate parent capable of overcoming lingering Victorianism. The beautiful Sophie, who begins life wealthy, only to fall into teenaged poverty, is “rescued” by her marriage to Hugh. The couple initially seems quite happy, but as time passes and the children grow up, bitterness settles over Sophie like a mantle. The reasons for her unhappiness are never made clear, though Atkinson offers a few hints—but no more.

In this era of too much information, readers are left to wonder at Sophie’s deep anger. Atkinson’s refusal to spill all is one of Life After Life’s many gifts.

The largest portion of Life After Life is devoted to WWII. Ursula is an adult, living in various situations, sharing apartments with friends or a lover. She works the Ministry of Intelligence, performing “secret war work”, a careful tallying of the dead. At night, as the Germans relentlessly bomb London, she joins the neighborhood wardens, searching for and aiding the injured. It is here, in looping replays, that we see war in all its horrors. Atkinson is unsparing in detailing the impact of bombs, debris, and fires on the living and inanimate: humans old and young, animals (Life After Life sports a vivid set of canine characters), and some of London’s finest old architecture.

The acknowledgements section encourages readers to visit Atkinson’s website, where she goes into detail about the motivations for Life After Life:

"The Blitz may be the dark beating heart of the novel but it isn’t all about the war, I begin it -- again and again -- in 1910, the ghost of Forster always at my back. There was something hypnotic and dreamlike in returning endlessly, remorselessly, to what seems to us now (quite wrongly) to have been that prelapsarian period before the First World War -- an Arcadian scene viewed through the lens of nostalgia (and Merchant Ivory films), before mechanized slaughter descended on the world . (The greatest ‘What if’, of all, of course, the staying of Princip’s gun hand at Sarajevo)."

I began this review saying Atkinson’s emphasis lay not with romantic love, but with war. And Atkinson does use the book as an opportunity to stay, if only in imagination, some of the hands that killed millions. Her's an ambitious attempt that only the most talented writer could carry off.

Yet Life After Life resonates with familial love, and in moving romance aside, gives it a chance to shine. When the Life After Life reaches its close, both Ursula and readers are given an unexpected gift, one that helps lift the book from an explication of humankind’s endless capacity for cruelty. We are left with a small, shimmering bit of hope, which is the most one can ever expect from Atkinson, and by extension, from the world she so expertly depicts.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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