Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
In a notable departure, British novelist Kate Atkinson brings her literary gifts to the world of speculative fiction. In her new stand alone, Life After Life, heroine Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. Beginning on the day of her birth, a snowy February day in 1910, the baby is “dead before she had a chance to live.” Except, in the very next chapter, we again witness Ursula’s birth and she isn’t choked by the umbilical cord. But she does succumb to another fate at the age of four.
And so it goes, living, exploring, experimenting, trying to get it right. It takes readers a while to actually meet the adult incarnation of Ursula Todd. There were so many dangers, so many wrong paths along the way. After a while, I’m afraid, it became just a bit like, “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” I don’t mean to be flippant, but this little girl died a lot of different ways. Any emotional intensity is severely muted through sheer repetition, and the knowledge that there are no real consequences. It will all begin again.
Which is not to say that there are no effects. Ursula seems to sense echoes of her past lives, sometimes even taking extreme measures to avert past disasters. Ms. Atkinson was rather brilliant in how she seeded these shadows of lives past throughout the novel and Ursula’s consciousness. Other reviewers have written eloquently on Buddhist philosophy, Jung’s Collective Unconscious, and many other sophisticated influences on Ms. Atkinson’s story. But one reader’s religion is another reader’s science. I, for instance, might go on about the physics of multiverses. “She had felt pleased with herself for resisting a yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress…” But in another lifetime, “She tried on the yellow crêpe de Chine tea dress she’d bought earlier that day…”
Buy the dress, don’t buy the dress. It’s one of a million—a billion—details that determine the outcome of our lives. As we watch Ursula live life after life, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less, we begin to determine the pivotal days, the ones that simply need to be survived. And we begin to see the cascading effect of small changes. We become very intimately acquainted with Ursula and the people that surround her.
classic, Replay, this has been done before. It may be my imagination, but I feel like I’m seeing more of this sort of tale lately. Variations on the time travel theme. What Atkinson brings to the table is her skill as a writer, and the deadly seriousness with which she carries out her tale. For it is unfolding not in contemporary America, but 20th century England. Intellectually I know the history, but living war after war after war through Ursula’s eyes was brutal. Born in 1910, the girl saw some history, and it’s very clear that Atkinson did her research. The novel lingers longest during WWII, with Ursula experiencing the war from multiple vantages, all of them fairly brutal. War is hell. Didn’t someone say that once? As a reader, I began to feel brutalized, trapped in an endless war that went on for (surely) hundreds of pages. There seemed to be no exit. What is the point of all these lives? That is the question. A big question with major philosophical implications.
Atkinson does give answers, of a sort, though there’s plenty open for interpretation. This book is great fodder for those who want to delve into these mysteries, and for those who want to discuss them with others. It is well written, thought-provoking, and compelling. I enjoyed it, and am glad to have read it, but while I’m usually the most enthusiastic reader and the loudest in my praise, I can’t seem to embrace this one as whole-heartedly as many readers have. I liked it. It was good, layered, well-written, brilliantly-plotted, etc. etc. But it’s grim. Atkinson covers a bloody period of history, and even without the wars, the body count is staggering. I didn’t actually count how many times or different ways that Ursula dies, but it’s a lot. And, frankly, even when she’s living, it isn’t all that joyful. This is an undeniably excellent novel, but I’m glad to have finally reached the end of the line. It’s time for me to move on.