Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013, Black Swan)

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910 and promptly dies. History repeats but she lives, the doctor having made it through the snowstorm. It is a pattern that Ursula is set to repeat dying multiple times in several different ways, sometimes a sense of déjà vu saving her from the same fate in a subsequent life. Mostly her lives follow a very similar trajectory, occasionally they diverge and take a different track. At some point, she realises that she could potentially save the world from the darkness of the Second World War. But can one person stop fate?

Life After Life follows the multiple lives of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five of an upper-middle class family. She’s born at Fox Corner, a large detached house in a small village on a commuter line to London and grows up – except when she dies early in childhood – with her family, and a maid and a cook. Her father is a banker and serves as a captain in the First World War. Her mother is a somewhat a snob and her aunt is a flirtatious socialite. Her elder brother becomes a senior civil servant. Ursula sometimes attends secretarial college and sometimes university, studying languages; sometimes she takes a year to travel to Germany, Italy and France. She nearly always has the same friends and takes the same lovers, though sometimes she has a disastrous relationship. In none of them does she have a long-term happy relationship or her own family. If she reaches her twenties she nearly always ends up in London working in the civil service and as an air raid warden during the Blitz, though occasionally she ends up in Germany. She seems destined to keep living variations of the same life, each living having echoes of those previous. All of her lives are somewhat ordinary as Ursula is not destined for fame; indeed, she lives a relatively small life.

Atkinson uses the repeating lives idea to explore the notion of history as a palimpsest, constantly being re-written over the top of itself where the previous iteration echoes through, as well as the tension between fate and contingency. A small alteration sets a different path, but the overall trajectory always remains similar since so much stays constant – family, home, friends, personality, education, etc. Thrown into the story is a mix of literature and philosophy on the nature of life (and death). By tracking Ursula’s various lives, the reader is asked to reflect on whether their lives would be roughly the same if they lived it over again? Would they seek to derail fate and seek something radically different? And would they sacrifice themselves for a greater good? It’s an interesting narrative form, with obvious echoes with Groundhog Day. It occasionally gets a little tedious always resetting to the day of her birth, though Atkinson does a good job of telling that event from many perspectives, but overall it works well. The temptation must have been to run major events through ‘what if’ scenarios, but keeping the focus on a small life makes the reflective questions more personal and grounded. The result is an engaging, thoughtful literary novel that asks big questions but not in a highbrow, inaccessible way.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I thought this was a brilliant novel, but many women in my book group could not get with the setup of her starting again many times. I thought that was the best thing of many ideas.