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A sure-footed, beguiling storyteller who makes it look easy

LIFE After Life is not only a deserving winner of the Costa Novel Award, but it ought surely to be chosen as Costa Book of the Year later this month.

That, certainly, would be a fitting tribute to a career that began in 1995 when Atkinson took the main prize - then called the Whitbread - for her strikingly original debut, Behind The Scenes At The Museum.

From that first novel and through all her work, but particularly in her stand-alone titles, Atkinson's trademark is a hypnotically conversational style.

This is partly thanks to sure-footed storytelling and a spirited readability that disguises the technique that makes such simplicity look easy.

Her allure, however, has even more to do with her beguiling, whimsical, razor-sharp voice, a tone that is distinctively hers.

Life After Life is based on the tantalising question: "What if you had the chance to have your life again and again, until you finally got it right?". But its real strength lies in its cleverly controlled execution.

Thus, what could have been a fey or tricksy juggling act is, instead, gripping in ways that are powerful and emotional.

The novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones has said that, if endings can be so easily changed, this book might herald the novel's demise, since what purpose could fiction subsequently fulfil? However, Time magazine chose Life After Life as its top book of 2013, and Costa are now honouring it.

This suggests that, far from signalling the novel's death knell, Atkinson might well have breathed fresh life into it.

Rosemary Goring is The Herald's Literary Editor

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