I've been reading Kate Atkinson's new novel - I'm a huge fan of hers. I love her wit and caustic asides - there's a wryness about her writing that is ever present, even in the darkest moments.
The structure of the novel should make it very difficult to read - but doesn't. I never warm to alternative endings - John Fowles 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' conspired to be just annoying. And Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors were a somewhat different formula - you know it was all going to work out in the end for the good of all - especially lovers. In Life After Life, it's hard to spot where it's heading. And of course the heroine - or anti-heroine - Ursula, didn't die at birth, because the book is quite long. But I've no idea which of the lives Atkinson describes is the 'real' one - or are they all just alternative lives.
What grips are the characters. It's fascinating to watch these very powerful characters played out in different scenarios. And of course the stakes are very high - there's rape, death, bombing, war, bereavement, abuse.
A timely reminder, this, for one about to go and teach a Guardian Masterclass on historical fiction. The essence of all good fiction, I'm sure, is character. That's the driver. If we care enough, we'll read in any direction, backwards, forwards, sideways. And we'll be fascinated by the smallest detail and the greatest drama.
I've never forgotten the words which I think locked me into a love affair with history once and for all. Our teacher, Miss Thomas, arrived in class to begin a lesson on the Thirty Year's War. She perched on her desk, folded her arms, regarded us with her usual mix of exasperation and affection and said: 'Now Queen Christina of Sweden was a very silly woman.' And behold, I was riveted. A silly queen, how did that work?