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life-after-life-kate-atkinsonThe recent post Books Books Books, included a long list of award-winning historical fiction. Let’s have a look at what readers say about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as an example of successful historical fiction.

With the notion of seeing what ‘ordinary readers’ rather than professional reviewers think, I looked at Goodreads. What leaps out immediately is the divergence of opinion on Atkinson’s novel – a huge number of 4 and 5 star ratings (63%) mixed with many 2 and even 1 star ratings (12%). Let’s have a look at readers’ comments to illustrate this novel’s strengths and shortcomings.

“It’s beautiful literature with sentences so poetic you read them more than once.”

“… wonderfully readable, beautifully written, and immensely thought-provoking.”

“Ms. Atkinson’s ability to capture the essence of life and its many forks in the road, however obvious, makes for an extremely compelling story.”

“Her research was also superb, truly giving you a feeling for the times, especially London during the Blitz and Berlin at the end of the Second World War.”

“I have read many books about England during wartime, whether it be I or II. But never have I read one with more immediacy than this one.”

“Is there a word that simultaneously means achingly lovely & frustratingly confusing?”

“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really understand this book.”

“The author captures Ursula’s moments of life-to-death-to-life enchantingly, yet poignantly, and the cycles nourish the theme of the story.”

“It is exhausting to read about a woman dying over and over again only to be reborn right back where she started…”

“It has an unmistakable old-fashioned Englishness about it – all tea time and ‘goodness gracious’ – which works very well with the time and setting.”

“I’m less mad at Atkinson, who thought she had a good idea, than I am at the idiotic book critics slobbering all over this nonsensical novel.”

Not surprisingly, most comments deal with the novel’s central structural element – the life-and-death-and-life-and-death-and-life (well, you get the idea) of the protagonist. Having read more than one hundred reviews, I can point to three elements of success:

  • superb writing
  • a unique concept that appeals at least partially because it’s a what-if question we all wonder about our own lives
  • compelling sense of time and place

I was surprised that very few reader reviews spoke of the novel as historical fiction.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at some of the other award winning novels as well as top novels listed as favourite historical fiction from the 2015 reader survey.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.