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Reviews

Life After Life

Clare F Hobba

RAtkinson.jpgKate Atkinson
Doubleday
477pp

In 1910 Ursula Todd dies at birth when the umbilical cord is wrapped round her neck; aged four when she paddles too far out to sea; aged five when she slips off an icy roof; aged eight of the Spanish flu; at twenty-two when her husband strikes her head on a table and at thirty in the Blitz.

The strapline for Life after Life by Kate Atkinson is 'What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right.' This scenario, of course, also describes the well-loved film Groundhog Day, and it is impossible to review this book without mentioning it. However, there are significant differences - in Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character is forced to re-live the same day until he stops being selfish and becomes kind. In Life after Life, the character of the heroine, Ursula Todd, is not in question - instead it is her purpose.

In Life after Life we see many different versions of Ursula Todd's life, most signalled with her snowy birth scene. This is a historical novel, but its structure is dependent on a notion of parallel universes more familiar from the genre of science fiction.

Such a premise might have led to a novel rich in philosophical and religious ideas, but that does not seem to have been Kate Atkinson's aim. Most obviously, there was no hint of an after-life. The phrase repeated at the end of each of Ursula's lives is 'darkness fell'. The blackout of death is complete so that we do not even know what happened to others who were caught in the same scene - for instance, whether Ursula's brother Teddy, who is fighting with her murderer, lives or dies.

In contrast to the apparent lack of afterlife, there is for Ursula some growing sense of memory between lives, a frequent feeling of déjà vu.  This memory encourages a sense of purpose, even of destiny. We know, right from the opening of the book, that in one of her lives, Ursula takes a shot at Hitler at close range, so she is definitely a young woman with an important mission. There is certainly a moment towards the end of the novel where she gathers up her previous experiences, knowledge and skills and makes that all-important plan.

So Life after Life presents a universe (or perhaps, a multiverse) in which there is no after-life but there does exist a sense of destiny.  The novel falls foul of a common form of 21st-century-centrism: characters do not try to make sense of what is happening to them in terms of Christianity even though, in the early part of the 20th Century (when the novel is set), it was definitely a part of everybody's landscape, even if they chose to reject it.

Within the confines of the book, there is one commentator on what is happening to Ursula - Dr Kellett, a private specialist whom she is taken to see. He explains to her the Buddhist theories of reincarnation and why she might be experiencing déjà vu. However, none of his models quite fit what is actually happening to Ursula. Nor is the reader ever quite certain of that. Although the book cover implies that the reason for Ursula's re-births is so that she can 'finally get it right', the rug is pulled on this notion by the fact that two alternative future lives are briefly described for Ursula after darkness falls on her assassination attempt on Hitler, implying that that particular life was not the ultimate one.

Kate Atkinson is not by predisposition a sci-fi author and does not dwell on the physics or metaphysics of the scenario.  Similarly, the reader who is interested in contemplating after-life, reincarnation and destiny will not find their horizons to be greatly expanded by Life after Life. Instead, the aspects of the book which are most rewarding are the sharply drawn characterisations and the historical focus on the way women were treated and the opportunities (or lack of them) that were open to them early last century.

Atkinson also uses the book's premise to have a little dark fun: the Irish maid, Bridget suffers particularly cruelly since, in several of Ursula's lives, it is she who goes to London to celebrate the Armistice and brings back Spanish flu to the house. With each re-telling Ursula becomes more ruthlessly creative in trying to stop her, resulting in a sprained ankle, broken arm and the loss of a fiancé.

What most struck me was the wittiness with which Atkinson achieved the difficult technical task she had set herself. On reading the premise for the book I feared I would be bored by the repetition, and in fact, it did take me a little while to warm to the novel, while she built the structures that were necessary to under-pin the plot complications to come, but any reader would soon recognise Atkinson as a skilful composer producing variations on a theme.

One particular feature which distinguished the telling of Ursula's different lives was the way in which we learned more of other members of Ursula's family each time, so that we came to love her father Hugh and sister Pamela. Whatever genre she is writing in, Kate Atkinson is warmly interested in the characters within the story and it is this which makes her so readable.

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