In Kate Atkinson’s literally fantastic new novel Life After Life, Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in 1910, is given not the gift of life, but of many lives. But are all these parallel lives a blessing or a curse? As one character in the novel says: “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. If we all had it there would be no history to write about.” But there would be, of course. We just might not recognize it.
Ursula Beresford Todd is born and dies on the same day. Then she is born and the doctor arrives in time to cut the cord around her throat and she lives. Then in the course of that life she falls into the sea and drowns as a child, falls out of a window and dies, is killed repeatedly during the Blitz, and lives a long life marked by acts of violence and acts of love. She shoots Hitler (well, wouldn’t you?). She marries the wrong man. And then another. She doesn’t marry. She shoots Hitler again. She has a child. She is childless. And so on.
This may be the most confusing plot synopsis ever, but please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the novel itself is anything other than illuminating. Reading it, you say to yourself: Yes, this is how life is. At any moment, it could all be so different.
This story of a woman born at the cusp of the modern age, survivor of both the Great War and (sometimes) the one that followed it, definitely falls into line with the philosophy of T.S. Eliot’s “time future contained in time past.” Given the story’s time and place, we are bound to come across Nazis and English airmen. Indeed, the novel makes the Blitz as fictionally real as Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum did the Somme. For readers of a certain sort of fiction, this is all familiar territory, yet Atkinson quite remarkably follows that old edict of modernist Ezra Pound’s and effectively makes it new.
Kate Atkinson has a deeply personal and idiosyncratic relationship with time. In her earlier novels, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Emotionally Weird and Human Croquet, as well as in her series of Jackson Brodie detective stories, there is always a sense of the present being merely the wrinkle in time where the past and future meet. Ursula, as a prescient child, notes that time is not a circle but a palimpsest. It is a document that can be erased and rewritten again and again.
Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow received a lot of attention for its use of reverse chronology. But Atkinson’s approach to narrative time is both more sophisticated and more seductive. Tempting as it is to imagine being able to “do over” certain events in one’s life – to cleverly outwit death, as it were – the novel proves again and again that the consequences of each action are not as predictable as we might wish. You may save one life at the cost of another. Atkinson even uses this conceit to comedic effect as the child Ursula resorts to desperate means to prevent their maid from going to London and contracting influenza during the VE celebrations.
Life After Life is a novel about family life in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. The novel could be just that and would still be what is so banally termed “a good read.” But the book transcends its subject matter to become a treatise on how to be human. Ursula’s goal in repeating key events in her life is not personal happiness but the protection of those she loves. Is this repetition conscious or unconscious? It’s never entirely clear, as scenes from her life repeat and repeat. What is clear is her motivation. Toward the end of the novel, Ursula thinks to herself: “This is love. And the practice of it makes it perfect.”
There are motifs in this novel recognizable to any faithful reader of Atkinson: drowned girls and lost airmen, siblings loved or scorned or forgotten and mothers who are absent even as they are present. Reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum you can clearly see how it is indebted to Tristram Shandy, and you can’t read Emotionally Weird without seeing the shadow Alice in Wonderland casts over it. I was trying to work out what informs Life After Life. And while there are strong elements of the fairy tale here (threatening wolves and clever foxes), really it seems that the novel is simply the culmination of everything Atkinson has already written. Which only makes me curious about what she will do next.
Life After Life posits an interesting question: If you could live your life over again, would you? While pondering the possible outcomes, you may want to read the novel one more time. Art is long and life is short, but not too short to treat yourself to the pleasures of Kate Atkinson’s prose along the way.
Sara O’Leary is working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House.
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