May 2013

Sessily Watt


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

On February 11, 1910, Ursula Todd is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She strangles and dies. Then, again, on February 11, 1910, she is born, only this time the doctor arrives in time to cut the umbilical cord. She lives to be a small child and then dies, only to return to February 11, 1910. Life After Life, the latest novel from Kate Atkinson, delivers on its title not through the reincarnation of multiple selves, but instead through a kind of lifelong version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: the same self, the same time, over and over.

The backdrop for Ursula Todd's many lives is England in the early twentieth century. The Todds are a well-off family, living in a house that Ursula's mother names Fox Corner for the family of foxes that appear and reappear throughout Ursula's various childhoods. The family is not small and comes with lines of tension that run this way and that through their relationships. Ursula's older brother Maurice stands out as the least-loved, and her younger brother Teddy as the most-loved. Her sister, Pamela, is a frequent confidante, and her mother a source of stress. Her aunt Izzie also appears at times to play the role of bad influence. While the relationships among these various characters remain basically the same throughout Ursula's various lives -- and their repetition allows the reader to immerse in them as the novel continues -- the other characters' life paths also change with each of Ursula's experiences. For example, one of her childhood obstacles is the Spanish flu, which, in various lives, takes down other members of the household as well.

Of course, a series of lives is also a series of deaths. Every time Ursula Todd is born again, the reader looks ahead to the death that will end it, wondering what it will be this time: Drowning? A bomb? Suffocation? Life After Life illustrates the many ways in which a possible death is hidden in every moment -- perhaps not statistically likely, but present nonetheless. One of Atkinson's achievements is that these inevitable and constant deaths are suspenseful. The tension is not in whether Ursula will die, but in how she will escape the previous life's death and what will become the new stumbling block. Ursula isn't as aware as the reader of the constant cycling back to her beginning, but still she learns with each new life, driven by déjà vu and inexplicable anxiety that tells her she must do something, though she doesn't know what. Sometimes that anxiety is unhelpful, a callback to a trauma from a previous life. Sometimes, though, it saves her, or saves a friend at risk.

Eventually, as she learns, Ursula overcomes her childhood deaths, living through World War I and the Spanish flu to become an adult in World War II. In many of her adult lives, Ursula is in London during the war, trying out different ways to make it through the Blitz -- one bombing, in particular, seems to be meant for her -- but in a few lives Atkinson takes the opportunity to send Ursula to Germany, even giving Hitler a few appearances. These are among the novel's weakest moments, since Hitler acts as a black hole, twisting the plot around his gravitational pull. As Ursula's lives continue and she remembers more and more of her previous lives, putting a stop to Hitler briefly becomes her purpose. These sections are relatively brief and feel like nods toward the Groundhog Day expectation that Ursula should be learning some concrete moral or achieving some utilitarian goal from the repetition of her lives. Luckily, the charm and fascination of other lengthier sections overcome Hitler's presence and this brush with simplistic morality.

Though including Hitler as a character may have been a misstep, placing the novel within the confines of the World Wars is perfect, at least for a novel concerned with well-off Brits. Ursula's repeated lives explore the way in which life is reshaped and distorted by the immediate, ongoing presence of war. Ursula is a civilian who goes nowhere near the front, but through the experience of the Blitz, she is involved in cleaning up human remains and saving those still alive after the bombings. She struggles on, despite the darkness that surrounds her. More than any confrontation with Hitler and more even than the occasional philosophical discussions about palimpsests and the ourobouros, it is Ursula's attempts to live her life as best she can that reveal the underlying optimism of the novel. No matter how many things go wrong, Ursula can try again, and no matter whom she loses, she can find them again. If only we were all so lucky.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Reagan Arthur Books
ISBN: 978-0316176484
544 pages