Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Transworld – March, 2013)
In February 1910, in the midst of a blizzard a baby girl is born. The doctor is unable to get through the snow and does not make it to the house in time. The cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck and the baby dies:
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
But then, miraculously, the same baby is reborn with a second chance—this time the doctor makes it through before the roads are closed, and the baby—Ursula—is saved.
The premise of the book is simple and yet wildly ambitious; outlined in a few quotes on the opening pages: “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” asks Edward Beresford Todd. It’s an alluring idea and a repellent idea—getting to start over, over and over again, endlessly repeating your life and, if you’re not careful, your mistakes. And wouldn't that be an incredibly annoying book to read--a Choose Your Own Adventure for grown-ups? I wasn't sure.
If you’ve just started reading this book and are not enjoying it—I would encourage you to persevere. A quarter of the way in I wanted to throw it against the wall. (But I didn’t—mainly because it was on my Kindle.) Ursula’s childhood felt a bit like those awful Final Destination films—death is out to get you and you can’t escape it. It is every parent’s worst nightmare—imagining all of the scenarios in which your child could die a tragic early death. At one stage Ursula gets trapped in a whirlpool eddy in which she keeps dying of the Spanish Flu over and over again like a stuck record. It became almost laughable. I did think that Kate Atkinson was losing her way and the concept was overwhelming the narrative. But then Ursula starts to become aware of her gift—or perhaps her curse—and takes decisive action to get herself out of the cycle of death:
'You have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.' Ursula didn't know whether this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear—fearful terror—that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. 'Don't dwell on such things,' Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. 'Think sunny thoughts.'
Ursula's awareness of her gift grows; at first she uses it purely for self-preservation—she does what she has to do to survive. But as an adult she faces more complicated questions—should she be trying to save humanity or should she use her gift to keep her own family safe? Ursula's character also develops and changes with each incarnation; she gets stronger as well as wiser.
It is an incredibly high-concept book. It has been compared to The Time Traveller’s Wife but, as much as I enjoy Audrey Niffenegger’s books, Life After Life is on a higher level. It does take a confident writer to write the same scene—Ursula’s birth—over and over again, with subtle inflections, slight changes of circumstance to differentiate between them. But her repetitions are not boring and they do not lose momentum. Instead they they gain traction and build and build towards a kind of narrative synergy—it is not just Ursula who finally learns to manipulate and control the rules of her world—the other characters also start to learn from the mistakes of their past lives.
High concept aside, Kate Atkinson’s evocation of London in the Blitz is one of the most exacting and compelling that I have ever read. Perhaps it is a pity that this quality of writing is subdued behind the premise of the novel but Kate Atkinson proves once again that she is an incredibly versatile writer who shape-shifts between forms—from literary, to crime, to this book which could be described as speculative historical fiction. Life After Life is a groundbreaking, genre-bending book—if you can just survive the Spanish Flu.