Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life was published early in the year and is a book I have intended to read for a while. And as we approach the end of 2013, it seems appropriate to review a book which comments on death and rebirth, offering alternate slices of life and a “Sliding Doors” approach to narrative and character. It’s especially meaningful to me, as I’ve just written a play in which six diverse characters confront their mortality and attitudes to death in very different ways.
Most books have a composite set of characters at their centre. And even if the novel progresses through flashbacks, jumbled juxtaposition of time frames or mixed points of view, there is usually some kind of progression in which we view them holistically.
Atkinson turns traditional story-telling on its head. Her heroine Ursula Todd (interestingly, ‘tot’ is the German word for ‘dead’) dies over and over again. First, she’s a baby in 1910, strangled with her mother’s umbilical cord one freezing winter’s night; we then see her as a toddler when she dies again, victim of a freak accident. A few years later Ursula is resurrected, but drowns helplessly on a family seaside trip; she succumbs to the great Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918. Other incarnations see her murdered by a psychotic husband and killed in the London blitz of 1942.
Her lives riff and intertwine like musical variations on a theme, and indeed the novel has a jazzy, improvised feel with leitmotifs abounding – many chapters end with the words “darkness fell”. Snow provides the silent background for both death and rebirth. In one life, the teenage Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant to her brother’s American friend and undergoes a backstreet abortion; yet in another life, a bashful kiss is her only physical interaction. One episode’s full stop is another episode’s near-miss or ellipsis.
In each of her lives Ursula grows a little older, before succumbing to the next, inevitable, conclusion. This drives the novel forward and delivers surprise after surprise. Some are harder to swallow than others – in one of her many existences, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in Germany and then assassinates Hitler in a Berlin café. We last see Ursula in the 1960s – as such, the novel sweeps panoramically through much of the 20th century, tackling the shifts of political and social change.
The one stable element is the family home, Fox Corner, an idealised portrait of British upper middle class life. It is a sanctuary, a still point in a turning world that threatens with danger and unpredictability. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread for her early novel Behind the Scenes in the Museum and is well-known for her crime novels, Case Histories, writes with elegance and restraint, capturing the domestic flavours of everyday life as well as the tragedies of war. A poached egg is “a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”. Ursula lives through the London bombings, as a fire warden, and in the morgues is sickened by the “macabre jigsaw” of limbs and torsos, “the crushed fragments of human lives, never to be whole again.” Ursula in each life lived, is also attempting to reach some kind of wholeness.
The alternate endings, both happy and sad, allow the reader to contemplate Ursula’s fate through diversely refracted lights. This is exciting, innovative, and takes storytelling into a fresh medium of possibility. Less satisfactory is Atkinson’s attempts to explain the rationale for this process. At one point Ursula’s mother, frustrated at her daughter’s strange behaviour and frequent flashes of déjà-vu, trots her off to a psychiatrist, Dr Kellet. Subsequent discussions between doctor and patient about reincarnation, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and whether it’s possible to live your life again and again “until you get it right” appear forced, as if justifying the novel’s structure and narrative drive.
Readers invariably care for the characters they get to know and worry about what happens to them. The question has to be asked whether readers empathise with a heroine whose life paths constantly morph into different realities. It’s to Kate Atkinson’s credit and a tribute to her skill as a writer that we believe completely in Ursula, life after life.