There may be a sense of déjà vu about this review, as this is far from the first that that I have sat down to review a book that has time as its central theme (Ferney, 11.22.63 and The Time Traveler’s Wife all spring to mind). However, while these novels all have time travel or time slips as their key conceit, Kate Atkinson has offered something rather more curious in her latest novel, Life After Life. I have previously read and enjoyed all of Atkinson’s other novels, both the stand-alone “literary” ones and her Jackson Brodie series of crime novels; that a favourite author should write a book on a theme that holds such interest for me shot this book to the top of my reading pile.
The key to the book lies in a comment uttered by a character towards the end: “What if we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?” We travel through the story with Ursula Todd, the third child of Hugh and Sylvie Todd, born into upper middle class English society on a snowy night in 1910. Sister to the pragmatic Maurice and the jolly-hockey-sticks Pamela – and later to Teddy (everybody’s favourite) and little Jimmy (born following Hugh’s safe return from the Great War) – she seems to be offered the chance to grow up in idyllic style and plentiful comfort. However beyond this simple premise, all bets are off in Ursula’s life.
The night of her birth sees Sylvia cut off from the world by a heavy snowfall, like a fairy tale, struggling to give birth with just the young maid Bridget for help. Ursula dies with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, suffocated for the want of surgical scissors. This event is marked by the simple phrase “darkness fell”. But then a surprising turn: the next chapter replays the scene, and this time the doctor reaches Sylvie just in time and saves her baby’s life. Having survived the trauma of birth, Ursula continues to thrive until a summer trip to Cornwall four years later, when she drowns in the sea after wading in too deeply with Pamela. Darkness falls again. The next iteration sees Ursula saved from the sea by a passing man who sees the children in danger, and managing to reach 1915…only to slip from her bedroom window while trying to reclaim a doll Maurice has cruelly defenestrated. Darkness once again falls.
By this point, the reader might be wondering if they have fallen into a sort of literary Groundhog Day, where one person has the chance to overcome the relative dangers of Edwardian childhood – falls, drownings, home births, Spanish Flu – to perhaps reach some higher purpose later in her life. Certainly escaping the nursery seems to do nothing to remove the threats to Ursula. It is when the book moves into the years of the Second World War that not only do the dangers mount, but that Atkinson achieves the most impact in her book. By this point we have come to know Ursula (in all her forms) well, and to see her forced to relive a direct hit on a London bomb shelter in November 1940 multiple times – as occupant, passer-by and ARP warden – never loses its impact on the reader.
But Life After Life is not just about seeing how much further Ursula can last each time, it is also about discovering how relatively small events and actions – in her life and in others’ – can have large impacts later on. I suppose this makes this story a kind of literary exposition of chaos theory, how “one could lose everything in the blink of an eye; the slip of a foot.” The nature of Ursula’s movements through time are never explained and perhaps don’t need to be. Her childhood psychiatrist, appointed by Sylvie who was worried about Ursula’s odd behaviour and episodes of déjà vu, offers his patient the explanation that time is circular and she should just accept these strange things as part of her fate. Ursula, vaguely aware of knowing or recognising things she shouldn’t do, says time is more like a palimpsest. Her mechanism of travel – the tabula rasa of snow after darkness falling – is only ever hinted at, intriguingly.
Life After Life is an ambitious novel, and while some of the “what ifs” strain believability slightly, the whole is one of the most enjoyably inventive books I have read in some time. The writing is gripping and varies effortlessly between moving and witty, and is genuinely involving in a way many (most?) experimental novels I have read fail to achieve. Don’t let tags such as “literary” and “experimental” put you off trying this book – if you have never read Kate Atkinson’s works before, this is great place to start with them.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published by Doubleday, March 2013
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