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Atkinson, Kate

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1951-    ) UK author, long resident in Scotland, whose novels have consistently engaged in postmodern plays with fictionality, though not in her early work with any sustained intent at undermining the non-fantastic modes she has occupied, which include the family history and the crime novel. The Jackson Brodie books, featuring a retired detective, very nearly however demolish the claim to realism through their witty recourse to cascades of coincidence (for Lateral Fantastic see Fantastika), and narrative sequences that mock plausibility. They are listed below for their borderline interest.

Several non-series titles provide genuine examples of full-blown twenty-first century Fantastika, and are all – despite their popularity with her large audience – corrosive of "normal" readership expectations. Human Croquet (1997) encloses a family-bound Timeslip narrative within a narrative of life on this planet, from its inception to Near Future decline and termination. Not the End of the World (coll of linked stories 2002) comprises a series of Twice Told tales [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], in which contemporary characters literally or by analogy replay material out of Greek mythology and Ovid, the main engine of the stories being metamorphoses, some actual. Two Near Future stories, featuring the same two characters, frame the rest. London is suffering a slow Holocaust, with plagues and starvation and an increasingly desperate military presence; the last sentence of the book is its title, uttered queryingly. Transcription (2018), though not literally fantastic, palimpsests so many Identities on its protagonist that her life during World War Two seems otherworldly. Shrines of Gaiety (2022), set mostly in the 1920s, features at least one ghost. Normal Rules Don't Apply: Stories (coll of linked stories 2023), set in the Near Future of an Alternate World not much different than this one, follows linked lives approaching and after the 2028 cosmic Disaster known as the Void kills any mammal in daylight every twenty-four hours minus five minutes. Some of the tales included are almost mimetic; but "Existential Marginalization" follows the lives and conversation of an assembly of toys (Toy Story is cited en passant) who know they are in a kind of Prison, and "Blithe Spirit" is a ghost story.

Life After Life (2013), which begins the Life After Life sequence, could be understood as being set in a series of Parallel Worlds, in each of which the protagonist Ursula Todd is followed from her birth in 1910 to a slightly different death; but this literalism fails to capture the motoric force of the tale, by virtue of which each new life can be understood as an attempt – by the Book itself? by the universe? by the protagonist? – to enjoy a better life by dodging the bad outcomes represented by a series of Jonbar Points (see also Time Loop); there are hints – none definitive – that Atkinson may be making use of the time theories of J W Dunne. Ursula's awareness of what is happening is limited to the occasional deja vu, until the closing sections, set in a desolately described World War Two, where she realizes that to enjoy a decent life in the twentieth century she must change the world. So she kills Adolf Hitler in 1930, a Slingshot Ending which effectively generates an Alternate History. There are analogies between this tale and Jerry Yulsman's Elleander Morning (1984), but the stories are in fact dissimilar. A BBC Television adaptation, Life After Life (2022 4 episodes), is weighted toward the earlier iterations of Ursula's passage. The second volume of the sequence, A God in Ruins (2015), focuses on the life in one plane (or Zone) of Ursula's brother Terry, who here survives World War Two; the narrative, instead of shifting iterations of his life, presents one version of that life through temporally discontinuous fragments and passages. Further volumes may further amplify Atkinson's exceedingly complex take on the nature of Time and the twentieth century.

Atkinson was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2011. [JC]

Kate Atkinson

born York, Yorkshire: 20 December 1951



Jackson Brodie

Life After Life

  • Life After Life (London: Doubleday, 2013) [Life After Life: hb/Johnny Ring and others]
  • A God in Ruins (London: Doubleday, 2015) [Life After Life: hb/from Jacques Charles Oudry]

individual titles

collections and stories


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