Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books; 544 pages; $27.99).
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 BC-475 BC) famously said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Well, he didn’t know Ursula Beresford Todd, the main character in Kate Atkinson’s bonny, daring, and sublime novel Life After Life. Time is not circular in Atkinson’s tale; rather, Ursula’s life is like an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. Atkinson continually recreates the character of Ursula; she is like a phoenix that is reborn over and over again.
“Become such as you are, having learned what that is,” Atkinson writes in Life After Life. On a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, and she does not survive. And then, on a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, but the doctor uses scissors (“snip, snip”), and the child lives. Her name is Ursula (“little bear”), and she just may hold the fate of mankind in her tiny hands.
The years pass, and Ursula grows older. Here, Atkinson ably illustrates the fragility of life in the early Twentieth Century when reaching adulthood was not guaranteed. One by one, Ursula is felled by drowning, a fall, and the Spanish flu of 1918. With words such as “darkness fell”, Atkinson takes Ursula’s young life. It feels miraculous when Ursula finally enters her 20s and 30s, only to encounter a whole new set of difficulties. Ursula perishes over and over—murdered by a violent, abusive husband; killed in the London Blitz; dead by suicide as the Russian army enters Berlin.
The author’s plot device, killing a character and then bringing her back to life, initially felt cheap and gimmicky. Atkinson quickly won me over, though, and in record time. Reading Life After Life, I experienced such a wide-range of emotions that I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth. Each time Ursula died, I grieved for her. Then, I turned the page to find Ursula very much alive.
It is as if Atkinson has her very own reset button and simply sets things right again. Atkinson sometimes returns to Ursula’s birth, but not always. Other times, Atkinson resets the tale to some pivotal moment in Ursula’s past, a specific point in her life, a day that seems no different from any other, yet a day when some kind of momentous choice was made that charted the course of Ursula’s life.
I began to wonder: just what does Atkinson have in mind for Ursula? Because clearly, why continually resurrect a character if she does not have some kind of higher purpose? “Practice makes perfect” is an idiom Ursula’s mother repeats throughout the novel. Ursula champions the phrase: “We can never get it right, but we must try.” The more Ursula lives her lives, the more she learns from them. Atkinson uses Ursula as a palimpsest. Her life is like a piece of parchment whose text is wiped away, but traces still remain.
Ursula experiences déjà vu as she remembers her past lives. It’s like reincarnation, except that Ursula comes back after death as the same person. As Atkinson kills and revives Ursula, notions of predestination versus free will come into play. In Life After Life, choices matter. Atkinson’s aim is to have Ursula retain some of the knowledge she acquired from her past lives, information that will not only change Ursula’s fate but possibly the futures of those around her and even the fate of the world.
“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula muses as World War II destroys everything around her, “if just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in…a Quaker household.”
Her friend Ralph counters, Hitler “might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.”
“If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought. Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.” Teddy, Ursula’s beloved baby brother, was an RAF pilot who got shot down by the Germans.
Teddy once asked Ursula, “What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right? Would you do it?” And so Ursula’s purpose becomes crystal clear, as does the reason behind Atkinson’s renaissance of her protagonist.
Calling Life After Life a “highbrow Groundhog Day,” as some critics have called it, is grossly oversimplifying a beautiful and rare story. Atkinson’s tale is not funny nor is it farcical, and Ursula does not relive the same day over and over again. In Life After Life, Atkinson takes drama to a whole new level. As Ursula says in the novel, “To have a character that changed and developed as it went along so that you had no idea how it was going to end up, how you were going to end up.” She may as well be talking about herself and about anyone who reads this noteworthy tale.
Part mystery and part historical fiction, Life After Life will completely immerse you because it is such an intriguing story and because it is so darn well-written. At turns dark, witty, sharp, clever, and poignant, Life After Life produces an unforgettable, unlikely heroine who proves just what a difference one life can make. Life After Life left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again.
If Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was THE book of 2012, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson will be THE book of 2013.