Review published on July 1, 2016.
This book was beautiful. The concept is simple – the execution is magnificent. It’s like a literary Groundhog Day, the reader knows what is going on even while the characters are not so sure. Ursula Todd is born in a snowstorm in 1910 and is strangled by the cord. Darkness falls … and Ursula gets another chance. This time, Doctor Fellowes arrives in time and Ursula survives. It’s an instantly intriguing notion – what if we really could go back and change our past? At different points in the novel, the narrator remarks that ‘practice makes perfect’ … but would it really?
This is a novel about possibilities, about paths not taken but also about writing and the power of the author. Atkinson gives the characters a second chance, a third chance, a fourth. Ursula is trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century so she is going to need all of the help she can get. In the prologue, Ursula walks into a Munich bar in 1930 and shoots Hitler; her many lives take her through both World Wars, the Spanish influenza and well into the 1960s. By Atkinson’s choice of structure, the reader can never forget that Ursula is a fictional creation, but yet she still seems very real and I found myself truly willing her that most fairytale gift of all, a happy ending.
Each time that Ursula meets her maker, ‘darkness falls’ and then she returns to the blank slate of the snowstorm which heralded her birth. During one particularly tricky incident as Ursula attempts to evade the annihilation of the family by the Spanish flu, there is a weariness as each time she is thwarted which prevents this from ever seeming repetitive – Ursula is as fed up with this as we are. Atkinson paints Ursula’s awareness of her gift with a light touch, like a kind of deja vu, sometimes she senses it and sometimes not.
It is perhaps inevitable that Atkinson would slot some philosophy in, with one character pondering; ‘Time is a construct, in reality, everything flows, no past or present, only the now’. In the now, we can do anything but as the author, Atkinson is God. She has it in her power to let Ursula die or return her to life again. In several versions, Ursula perishes in an air raid shelter during a bombing raid, during others she is part of the rescue team sent to dig everyone out. The reader recognises the victims from their grisly remains, but Ursula does not.
There is an element of the theatrical to this novel, a kind of bravado about being British and trying to make the best of things. There is a sense, too, though of wish-fulfilment; anybody who has ever experienced grief knows what it is to wish someone back, to wish, wish, wish with all your heart but in life, we cannot undo death. Atkinson’s generosity to Ursula in allowing her to redo, retake, try again creates a moving story but as the novel finished on the happiest possible note, I felt somehow duped, feeling that this might well be a story that Ursula was telling herself. A happier version than the sad reality that faced all too many people who had the misfortune to live through two World Wars. There was too much loss to face, far too much. Far easier to pretend that we can have another try and do it better next time.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Black Swan 978-0552776639 hbk Mar 2013
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