Almost a year ago I chose Atkinson’s Life After Life from the list of new ebooks on the Berkeley Public Library website based entirely on the cover art. In retrospect, I suspect I chose it because it reminded me of one of my favorites from high school, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.
I entirely missed what huge deal this book was. I took it with me on a trip, reading it in the plane and during a couple of long, hot afternoons stretched out on a beach chair, until, frustratingly, it expired, leaving behind only an Amazon form letter inviting me to buy a copy (worst sales pitch ever).
Back home in California I followed a Twitter wormhole to an article with the specious headline “Is Kate Atkinson Britain’s Most Ambitious Novelist?” The tag was almost unrelated to the actual text, the kind of thing an editor slaps on to court clicks–which worked on me (I could hardly wait to start my explicative studded list of names…. Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo-freaking Ishiguro!) I re-borrowed the book immediately and tore through the final third in the comfort of my own bed back in Berkeley.
Life After Life extrapolates on two well-worn tropes: what if Hitler had been assassinated before he rose to power? and, as the main character’s favorite brother puts it, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again…until we finally did get it right?”
The novel opens in 1930 Ursula Todd walks into a German cafe and shoots Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s life, we learn, is relived in endless permutations. In some lives she dies in childhood, drowning on a seaside holiday, or during the flu pandemic of 1918. In others she grows into an adult, living in London during the Blitz, marrying a scarily violent man, staying single and becoming a secretary, traveling to Europe and marrying a German–ultimately returning again and again to her birth in an English country house during a blizzard in 1910.
Gradually, the shadows of her past lives begin to guide Ursula’s steps, instinctively driving her away from known dangers. As the depth of her experience builds, she comes to consciously understand and trust her foreknowledge.
I was reminded of a passing comment one of my writing teachers once made on the underlying structure of another of my old favorites, Middle March. She remarked that Elliot spends the first half of the book just on set up and character development before stepping back to let the action take its natural course in the second half, effectively keying the story up, then letting it all unwind. Life After Life works much the same way. The pace accelerates as the novel continues, with lives coming in quick succession, slipping into one another, the heroine’s memory becoming slowly enmeshed with the reader’s as time and perspective bend, unwinding until we find ourselves back in that first moment in the cafe.
Despite the world-shifting stakes, Life After Life is largely–perhaps even primarily–a book about fraternal love, particularly Ursula’s relationship with her younger brother Teddy, whose well being often forms a personal proxy for that of the population at large. It is Teddy’s fate, even more than her own that Ursula seeks to change when she begins to exert agency.
The dramatic shifts through time are surprisingly easy to follow. Atkinson orients readers through a combination of dated headings and repeated passages echoing through the layered realties, creating a de ja vu effect that readers share with the heroine. This ease also owes something to the popular premises the author has appropriated. Any respectable TV viewer has been trained to interpret this type of story. From Science Fiction to Romantic Comedy, the alternative reality is such a standard device that explanation is unnecessary, leaving the author free to concentrate on character and relationship. The book is at its most engaging when tightly focused on Ursula, her family, and their experiences. When the scope widens to encompass familiar world events, it can feel overdone, a little dull.
Atkinson is a talented novelist, meticulous both in plot and language, true and faithful to her characters. Life After Life was an enjoyable read, a technical achievement, and a creative cultural remix.