I often joke that I am only married to my husband because of the seat I picked on a train one day. By chance I sat opposite an old school friend; we were both relocating to Dublin and decided to look for a flat together. My husband was one of her friends who came to visit. Would I have met him if I hadn’t got into that carriage? Who can know?
But what if you could know? What if you had the gift (or the curse) of dying and being reborn over and over again so that you can change your future, so that you can get things right for yourself, your family and maybe even the world?
That’s the premise of Life After Life, a brave and bold novel that is part historical epic and part family saga and possibly even part science fiction, but always so much more than the sum of these parts.
The novel begins with a prologue that can’t help but grab the attention, as we meet Ursula Todd, in a small German cafe, assassinating Hitler with her father’s Great War revolver. We are then taken back to 1910 where a child is born on a snowy night, but dies after just a few moments in the world due her to umbilical cord wrapping tight around her neck.
Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky. Darkness fell
The next chapter begins again, but this time the child survives. And so, with the premise set, we follow the child Ursula and her family as she grows up, living out her life time and time again. Ursula keeps dying, and dying again. She dies in childbirth, drowns, falls out of a window, and succumbs to influenza. She is murdered. She commits suicide. She dies in the bombing of London in World War II and in Berlin in 1945. The narrative continually starts again, but each time it takes a slightly different course, sometimes changing radically, sometimes only slightly altered, but always utterly unpredictable. The prologue, with the death of Hitler, might be the main signpost for where we are going, but the pleasure is in the journey.
Indeed, a great deal of 20th-century history transpires in the lives between Ursula’s sudden and often violent exits from life. Her existences, serial or parallel, take her through two brutal world wars and on into the 1960’s. But with each turn in her story is revised and therefore so is the outcome.
Atkinson is good at showing how an entire life can be changed irrevocably in an instant and how the seemingly smallest of decisions and timings can have devastating effects. In one life, there is a stolen kiss. In another life, that kiss becomes a rape. In one life, two girls collect leaves in a quiet lane, yet in another one of those children is killed. We are reminded time and again of how fleeting and random life can be. Atkinson seems at a glance to be suggesting that things will get better with repetition, that ‘practice makes perfect’ but never lets us get complacent. Ursula carries within herself, a sense of déjà-vu, dimly remembered fragments of her other lives that drive her actions.
She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if it were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling in to the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.
She feels there are things she should do, or not do, but is not always sure why. And while a certain chain of events will save Ursula from one fate, that chain of events may not save her friend, her brother, her father from another. It is as if she must decide which kind of story she wants.
We, the reader are implicated in this manipulation as well. It is as if Atkinson is asking, ‘what kind of narrative do you want?’ Do we want a happy ending? Do we want Ursula to save herself or those she loves? Or are we happy to be left with uncertainty, both about what might happen and about what already has happened? In Atkinson’s world, we can have it all. This might make the book seem ‘tricksy’ but don’t be fooled, this is no mere exercise in narrative form, although that in itself would make it impressive.
Despite being aware of the artifice behind the novel, the fiction behind the story, Atkinson’s tellings and re-tellings build our affection for Ursula and her family. It can be strange to fully invest in one scenario, only to be bereft (or relieved) to have it end and begin again, but each life builds on the past one to create a story that shines as layer after layer is glazed on. The life of the Todd’s at Fox Corner is beautifully rendered, with a surprising amount of humour. The narrative structure allows these familial relationships to grow, facets of characters to be revealed and in particular, it is Ursula’s relationship with her father Hugh that benefits the most from the skill of the storytelling. More love and affection shine through with every retelling and towards the end I felt that Ursula’s assassination of Hitler was as much a personal act – a chance for her to save her beloved brother Teddy – as it was to stop the war that she had seen from every angle.
The war is central to this novel, particularly the London Blitz and it is brought vividly to life by telling the core of the story, the bombing of a house in Argyll Street in 1940, from Ursula’s point of view as both victim and saviour. While I did think this section dragged a little and could have been 50 pages shorter, Atkinson created some images that will linger in my mind for a long time.
…a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by those small reminders of domestic life – the kettle still on the stove, the table laid for a supper that would be never be eaten – than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized that there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms
Yet, it is in the middle of the extraordinary nature of Ursula’s story that the ordinary shines through, the love for a brother; the kindness of an aunt; the protection of family. Ursula becomes almost an every woman, living all of female experience possible at that time – she is a mother, a sister, a ‘spinster’, a woman of independent means and a battered wife. She is raped, has an abortion and travels the world. Atkinson’s one constant in Life After Life is family and the notion that how where you are from will continue to shape you no matter what life brings.
Atkinson is clever enough not to provide any explanations or endings and in some ways she raises even more questions that she answers. Is there a hint that Ursula’s mother Sylvie is having the same experience as her daughter? We can’t be sure, just as we can’t be sure if Ursula kills Hitler and stops the war from happening. Whether she does or not may not even be the point, because the book ends right back at the beginning, it is the serpent with its tail in its mouth, continuing on.
Life After Life is an ambitious and absorbing novel and I’m looking forward to reading the other three Kate Atkinson books that I have in the 746. I’m delighted that you voted it as the winner of my inaugural Reading Roulette and if you’ve read any other books by Kate Atkinson, feel free to recommend which one I should go to next!
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