“‘What if we had a chance to do it again and again,’ Teddy said, ‘until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’
‘I think it would be exhausting. I would quote Nietzsche to you but you would probably thump me.’ ”
Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life opens with a bang, as the main character shoots Hitler wither her father’s old service revolver in November 1930. This bold opening hook is perhaps necessary given the ponderous nature of the narrative that follows; Ursula Todd is born on a snowy English night in 1910. In one timeline, she dies strangled by her own umbilical cord, the doctor unable to reach her family’s country house through the storm. In another, the doctor arrives in time to save her, thus beginning a life of trial and error, guided only by vague hunches and sudden bouts of déjà vu. Ursula dies a hundred mundane deaths, accidentally smothered as an infant, drowned at the sea shore, or felled by the influenza epidemic, but always lives again, trying, subconsciously, to correct her mistakes and set a new course, only peripherally aware of her unique situation and the opportunities it affords her. Heavy with the weight of history and literary reference, Life After Life examines the minute implications of an individual’s choices.
Atkinson has a wonderful lyrical quality to her writing—her rendering of the Blitz in particular is bleakly magnificent—but the execution of the central premise left me underwhelmed. The premise is, by its very nature, rather repetitive, and watching Ursula go through life after life of trial and error is indeed exhausting. The rapidly shifting timelines require an attentive and patient reader, and one that will be satisfied with an understated conclusion. While Ursula’s smallest personal choices have greater consequences on the course of her life than we could possibly imagine, the opening scene receives lacklustre follow up. Either the consequences are unexamined, or that act has much less effect on the course of history than anyone could have imagined. The second is not necessarily problematic, but some indication that this is the case would be helpful. Without this examination or explanation, the opening hook feels like a marketing gimmick, since the possible courses of a single human life have the potential to be quite interesting without casting the individual onto the stage of history. Overall, Atkinson’s writing in Life After Life left me curious about what her backlist might have to offer, but not particularly impressed with this story in and of itself.
Already read Life After Life? You might also enjoy The Mirage by Matt Ruff.