In Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life, she imagines many possible lives for the same character. Malcolm Jones salutes a gripping and sophisticated work.
“Time isn’t circular,” declares Ursula Todd, the resilient heroine of Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s enthralling new novel. “It’s like a … palimpsest.” Time, for her, resembles not a line but a landscape where the past keeps poking up through the thin soil of modernity and messing with our ever-shaky hold on the here and now. Or as Ursula might put it, it’s all here and now—past, present, and future up and running at the same time. Because as far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing theoretical about any of it. This is the only world she recognizes—where chance has the upper hand, death has the last word, and every action has its consequences—a bloody but ultimately beautiful vision brought vividly to life in the pages of this book.
From the outset, nothing comes easy for Ursula, who lives and dies at least six times in the first 100 pages alone. The date (February 11, 1910) and place of her birth (suburban London) stay constant, while competing accounts of her biography pour forth, each one modifying the one before. In one telling, she dies at childbirth. In another she makes it as far as 5 before she falls off the roof. Spanish influenza does her in when she’s 8. In this novel, which deftly captures the cruel frailty of life with judicious compassion, cause of death is almost always accidental, the circumstances as casual as they are merciless.
Ursula finally survives her childhood, only to be snuffed out again in her 20s, the victim of a brutal husband. World War II offers innumerable opportunities for her to perish during the Blitz. But Ursula is phoenix-like, dying and rising up again and again. Gradually we realize that her lives are not merely serial but sometimes simultaneous. There is Ursula the civil servant bravely patrolling a London bombed to pieces during the Blitz. There is another Ursula who is intuitively prescient about her multiple lives (it is this incarnation who describes life as a palimpsest). There is even an obsessive Ursula bent on assassinating Hitler.
Fiction that manufactures alternate versions of real history usually just winds up looking silly. But Atkinson doesn’t really care what might have happened if Hitler had died in 1930. She’s no more writing a conventional alternate-history novel than she is writing the World War II version of Groundhog Day or some elaborate variation on “for want of a shoe …” Instead, with a poet’s compression of detail (a monogrammed cigarette case means now one thing and then something quite different when it surfaces elsewhere in the narrative), she has built a cosmos from the ground up, a cosmos in which an Englishwoman’s superficially ordinary life plays out in myriad ways with multiple outcomes, each dictated by the random collisions of chance, character, and circumstance. The Ursula who journeys to Munich with a gun in her purse is merely one Ursula among many, the sum of several selves, each one different in subtle but substantive ways and every iteration indelible.
It doesn’t hurt that Ursula herself is a shrewd, observant witness to all around her: At 6, she “could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree … remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face.” What really doesn’t hurt is that Atkinson has bestowed, fairy godmother-fashion, her own droll sense of humor on her leading lady: “Ursula seemed to remember that Jesus had a particularly confrontational conversation with the woman at the well. A woman of Samaria—no name, of course. She had had five husbands, Ursula recalled, and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband, but the King James Bible never said what had happened to those five. Perhaps she had poisoned the well.”
There is always the danger, when praising Atkinson, of exalting her technical prowess at the expense of her more immediate charms, of making her sound like some post-modern Virginia Woolf-wannabe when in fact no writer alive makes for better company on the page—knowing, funny, and prodigally inventive: Ursula is a magnificent creation, but dozens of finely drawn secondary characters (her bohemian Aunt Izzie alone would make this book worth reading) force her to fight for the spotlight on every page.
Unflaggingly curious and unfailingly open-minded, Atkinson is like some great snoop, prowling among life’s mysteries, turning the commonplace inside out. Not surprisingly, at least four of her novels have featured a private investigator, the dourly engaging Jackson Brodie (although reductively labeling the Brodie stories as detective novels is like calling Moby-Dick a fish story). Literary and entertaining all at once, Atkinson is a sophisticated artist who also can keep you up well past bedtime, and that double-barreled talent is on display as never before in Life After Life. My first reaction upon finishing it was to imitate the unsinkable Ursula and begin all over again.