Different Versions of a Life, All Lived‘Life After Life,’ a Novel by Kate Atkinson
By JANET MASLIN
Published: March 25, 2013
In the midst of a secret love affair, Ursula Todd discovers that she is an excellent liar. The same can be said admiringly of Kate Atkinson, whose latest novel, “Life After Life,” is her very best. Ms. Atkinson’s wide-ranging body of work includes several novels that resemble mysteries, but she has never had the narrowly deductive mind to suit that genre. “Life After Life” is a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination.
Ursula is the main character in “Life After Life,” but she appears in different, contradictory versions of similar events. She also seems to die at many different times during the book, only to reappear unscathed, as if mortal danger were only a trick of the mind. “Life After Life” is full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playful. For Ursula the past and the present become intertwined in a way that is “nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest.” This is not mumbo-jumbo. It’s not horror, either. It’s more like a narrative multiverse, in which different versions of Ursula’s life compete for the reader’s attention and keep a conventionally one-note story well out of reach. True, it can be frustrating to be deep in the midst of one of Ms. Atkinson’s plot threads, only to have her abandon it and switch to something else. But unlike some of her more random-seeming books, like the 2011 “Started Early, Took My Dog,” this one connects its loose ends with facile but welcome clarity.
On Feb. 11, 1910, Ursula is born, strangled by her umbilical cord. “Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere,” Ms. Atkinson writes of the birth. “No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”
It is a snowy night, and the whole book hinges on whether a doctor will get to the Todd house in time to negate this version of Ursula’s life story. Although she is saved, the snow becomes a recurring motif for Ms. Atkinson’s repeated blurring of the line between life and death.
Even without the sleight of hand, “Life After Life” would be an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters. There is Ursula’s doting father, Hugh, who calls her Little Bear and refers to his study as “the growlery.” There is Sylvie, her aristocratic mother, who becomes more bitter over time; this could be connected to Ursula’s having once seen Sylvie emerging from a hotel with a man other than Hugh. There is Teddy, the beloved brother who always wants to know whether there was cake at a party, and snobbish Maurice, the only loathed sibling in the family. There is Pamela, Ursula’s sister and helpmate, who writes archly about Hitler in 1933: “He likes women, children, dogs, really what can you fault? It’s just a shame he’s a dictator with no respect for the law or common humanity.”
In a far-fetched but necessary plotline (and a needlessly conventional prologue), Ursula either will or will not be close enough to the Führer to aim a gun at him. But she has so many alternative lives to get through before reaching that juncture. She has a sexual experience on her 16th birthday, and at first it is a rape resulting in pregnancy. Later on, the same birthday involves Ursula in different liaisons, cruel or romantic, with very different teenage boys, and the course of her future hangs in the balance.
In one iteration of the plot, she is shamed enough to do penance by marrying a terribly abusive schoolteacher. When he disapproves of the egg Ursula makes him for breakfast (“a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die”), he drops it on her head, then violently beats her.
“Life After Life” is ultimately centered on the brutal British experience of World War II, with characters caught in the blitz and Ursula joining a rescue unit for injured civilians. As powerful as the rest of “Life After Life” is, its lengthy evocation of this nightmare is gutsy and deeply disturbing, just as the author intends it to be.
Nowhere is safe: she describes a man “killed by shrapnel from the ack-acks in Hyde Park.” Mortuaries try to match up body parts “like macabre jigsaws.” One of Ursula’s early missions involves trying to save a basement full of people who are being drowned in sewage. And unlike most of the events in this novel, these gruesome scenes have no alternative versions.
Wartime also inspires one of Ursula’s brothers to want to write about the human condition. “A writer?” their mother says. “I fear the hand of the evil fairy rocked his cradle.” On the evidence of this book, Ms. Atkinson can afford to joke about that. Her own writerly cradle was rocked by a very sure hand indeed.