If you could live your life again, would you? If you could magically go back, would you change all the crappy things, all the things which ended up a bit, well, pear-shaped? Where would you even start? With that dodgy perm? That fish course? A spouse? Or perhaps you’d go big – really big. Why not change the course of history? Why not assassinate Hitler?
Kate Atkinson’s latest novel plays with these ideas. Its heroine, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 to middle class parents and into a world on the cusp of change. However Ursula is stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day scenario, doomed (or gifted?) to repeat events again and again in slightly (or enormously) different permutations. So our first Ursula dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second Ursula survives a bit longer, until the Grim Reaper once again steps in. And again. And again.
In fact the whole novel is populated by a myriad of Ursulas. Each time she dies, she’s reborn and lives her life again in a slightly different way. So one Ursula survives the Blitz only to die a sad lonely death in a squalid flat, while another is killed during the bombings. Another spends the war in Germany, hanging out with Eva Braun. One is killed by a backstreet abortion while still a teenager. Sometimes she finds it hard to work out how to avoid her fate; the influenza pandemic in 1918 takes a few goes to get through successfully. Each Ursula seems to become a little bit more aware of her past lives, if only through a strange feeling or what her mother, Sylvie, explains as déjà vu.
If this all sounds a bit like season 5 of Lost make no mistake, Life after Life is primarily a family saga. This is comfortable ground for Atkinson, it’s what she does best; 1995’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows its protagonist Ruby Lennox, as well as the four generations of women behind her and Life after Life has a similar feel. The minutia of everyday life jostles against the novel’s expansiveness and we’re reminded of the duplicity of time.
Atkinson’s structure will keep you flicking the pages back and forth continually to check and double check. But once you get into the rhythm the stop/start narrative feels more natural. There’s still a lot of piecing together for the reader though – you might say Life after Life is a puzzle to be solved. How will Ursula get it right?
And herein lies one of the problems. There doesn't really seem to be any point to Ursula’s varying lives. When her mother sends her to see a shrink, the doctor suggests she’s being reincarnated. But each Ursula doesn't necessarily improve things – in fact often one aspect will be made better but another is then sacrificed and worsened. And of course we have to mention Hitler. I'm honestly not plot spoiling to mention this – the very first chapter has Ursula attempting (or succeeding?) in assassinating the Fuhrer, but if this is one of the incarnations of Ursula or a flash forward to a later one is unclear (she points the gun at him, his guards point their guns at her, then ‘darkness falls’ – the code in the novel for her death/rebirth). The ending of the novel is very ambiguous too, and whilst this isn't something I’d normally complain about, in this case I was left feeling, well, unsatisfied.
It’s clever structurally – there’s no doubt about that. But Atkinson throws us a red herring. The first half of the novel has a clear rhythm and alternating timeline which goes something like this:
1. Ursula lives her life then dies (we move through the years)
2. We return to the day she was born and find out a little bit more about the events of this day (we move through the hours of this particular day in 1910)
1. Ursula lives her life a bit further then dies
2. We return to the day she was born…
Understandably I thought we were moving towards some big reveal about the family, some dark secret of Sylvie’s we’d learn on that day in 1910 (I was sure she’d been dallying with the farm boy George) but in the second half Atkinson simply abandons this structure, instead focussing on Ursula’s numerous lives, which were all starting to merge into one bleak and depressing blur of death and misery.
This really is a novel of two halves. For me, the first half was fantastic. Atkinson tells the story through a variety of characters (not just Ursula) so we learn about her parents, Sylvie and Hugh, and the family dynamic. It’s absolutely evocative in its depiction of a pre-Lapsarian England teetering on the brink of the First World War. The Todds live (aptly) in Fox Corner, a Forsterian country house where the children play outside during long hot summers and the family sip lemonade together on the lawn. Atkinson perfectly encapsulates the moment and it’s all the more poignant because of our knowledge. We know the future – we know 1914 is just around the corner and that Hitler will rise to absolute power in 1933. Fox Corner is the safe hideaway before the 20th century picks up speed, an idyllic space now lost forever. But even this sanctuary is threatened. A paedophile lurks just outside the boundaries, preying on the local children.
Later the other characters slip out of view and it’s all about Ursula, which I think is a shame as Sylvie interested me – there was so much more to learn. And then there’s the grim scenes of war torn London during the Blitz. These really are horrific. This hellish dystopia makes Fox Corner a distant rose-tinted memory and I don’t think Ursula ever really recovers from it.
Perhaps Ursula’s conversations with her shrink give us the biggest clue about how to understand Life after Life. She suggests life is a palimpsest – a series of overlays, a document erased and written over, erased and written over. In this case Ursula’s eventual idea to kill Hitler isn't the best idea or even the culmination of a series of lives and learning, it’s simply another idea, one of many. And after each life path variation there’ll be another. There’s no real closure at the end of Life after Life, no definitive Ursula and no absolute truth. Ursula’s role seems to be just to bear witness to events and history. Atkinson’s novel is intriguing, moving and somewhat flawed, but it’ll keep you hooked right up to its ambiguous ending.