Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

by Robert A. Parker

This 2013 work is a strange novel, a marvelous novel, a puzzling novel. As the title suggests, it is about its heroine Ursula Todd dying and then not dying. It is also about premonitions she has, as a child, about others dying, and her efforts to prevent that from happening. Her parents send her to a psychiatrist at age ten, a man who introduces the idea of reincarnation, which Ursula and the reader rejects, for reincarnation does not apply precisely to her situation. But the psychiatrist also introduces the idea of the circularity of time, and while this does not fit Ursula’s life, it does fit the construction of this novel.

Ursula is the daughter of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, he a doting father, she a snobbish mother. Ursula has an older brother Maurice, aloof and supercilious; an older sister Pamela who is bossy as a child but becomes Ursula best friend as an adult; and younger brothers Teddy, who is her favorite brother and will join the air force, and Jimmy, less significant, who will leave England after the war. They represent the strong base of this novel, an upper middleclass family that represents the heart of English society.

But the reality of this family shifts from the moment Ursula is born. Because Ursula dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord, but then does not. She falls off a roof and dies, but then does not. Influenza kills her and a faithful servant, but then does not. A neighborhood girl is raped and killed, but then, with Ursula’s help, is not. Ursala herself is killed in the World War II, but then is not. What is going on here? It is not easy to determine, for the author jumps back and forth in time as she blends Ursula’s disruptive life and modern British history.

Then come three dramatic moments that do not seem to belong, that even seem a misjudgment by the author. First, Ursula is raped at age sixteen, by an American who seems to exist only to be a tool of the author. And she becomes pregnant. But that life is replaced by another, in which Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher. She flees, but he tracks her down and attacks both her and her brother Teddy. Darkness falls, which is the repeated sign of her dying, but we never read the consequences of that attack, not on Teddy and not on the schoolteacher. The event fades into non-existence.

Then, in an alternate life, Ursula meets a boy on a visit to Germany, falls in love, and remains in Germany throughout World War II. Here, Atkinson suggests, through Ursula and her alternate self, parallels between how one experiences the bombing of Berlin and how one experiences the bombing of London. Indeed, the London blitz scenes are the most memorable in the book—and not simply because Ursula dies once in a cellar, then dies while trying to save people in that cellar, and finally lives on when a dog’s presence, which led to her second death, now leads to her survival.

And at this point, this reader realized two things. Atkinson was through this one family trying to convey mid-twentieth century English history; and, even more important, she was dramatizing how a single event, a single decision in one’s life, can change that life dramatically. (Do I subscribe to this because my marriage, my own life, was so changed?) There is at the end even an explanation for a mysterious opening scene, in which Ursula seems poised in 1930 to kill Adolf Hitler—with speculation about how that could have changed modern European history.

At the end of her novel, the author attempts to tidy up her many divergent stories. Just as “Darkness fell” heralds the frequent deaths of Ursula, “Practice makes perfect” heralds some of these reversals of death. A near-death experience of Ursula at the beach had followed her actual death, and now this event is tidied up by becoming the drowning of the handicapped and illegitimate child of her Aunt Izzy. Or is this an example of a past drama altering one’s memory? In fact, which event is real? Then Ursula tells a lie to save the family servant Bridget from going to London to catch influenza and die with her lover Clarence. (Ursula, in one instance, had failed to achieve this when she pushed the girl down some stairs.) This recapitulation is also when the psychiatrist asks ten-year-old Ursula to draw something, and she draws a snake swallowing its tail—representing, he says, “the circularity of the universe.” Aha!

This section is also when we learn Ursula is a good shooter, which hearkens back to her confrontation with Hitler (although not how she got in that situation). We also learn why a neighbor Nancy died on one level, due to Ursula’s actions, as earlier we learned why she did not die, also due to Ursula’s actions. Finally, the novel has a happy ending in its next-to-last chapter, an ending that seems unnecessary. A character everyone thinks has died in the war has not died, and is reunited with a lover. Yes, it illustrates the uncertainty of life, as well as of war, but it seems unnecessary—mainly, I think, because we never see the consequences of that return to life.

Speaking of circularity, there are also the dogs in the life of Ursula and her family. They keep dying and then being replaced. Not always, but many are also given the name of Lucky. Their dying and “rebirth” as another dog surely is intended as a parallel to both Ursula’s shifting life and the novel’s construction.

A major plus of this novel, which helps the reader accept this English version of magic realism is Atkinson’s style. It is reminiscent of Muriel Spark, and early Waugh, in its clear, aloof, arbitrary, witty, godlike treatment of the lives and the fates of these characters. Not to be overlooked, either, are the relationships established among the many characters, whether within Ursula’s family, including with her naughty Aunt Izzy, with the family servants, or with Ursula’s various lovers, air wardens, and German friends, even Eva Braun.

This is one of those rare novels in which I did not mind trying to puzzle out Ursula’s life, the reality of its events, or the meaning of this novel. Nor was I frustrated that the novel offered no clear answers. Not why her power to foresee calamity faded after childhood. Not why she has the power to die and return. And not what the power of recreating history means.

This was for Atkinson, I believe, an exercise in the imagination. What if one could die and come back? What if one could affect the lives of others? What might a novelist do with that? Atkinson has seemed interested in her other novels with the idea of connections. Here, the connection is with destiny. Not, what happens to us after death, but what if our destiny in life changes, or what if we could affect that change.

As Francine Prose sums up in her excellent Times review: “Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final.”

Atkinson herself has written: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection, perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.”

Atkinson has explained that she was born after World War II, and her family rarely discussed that era; but that she intended here to write a novel about that war. And that the “dark, bleeding heart” of that novel would be the blitz. In this she certainly succeeded, because the lengthy treatment of Ursula’s work as an air warden is the most memorable section of this work. But Atkinson also realized that in order to write about someone in the war she had to give her a back story—which in this case turned out to be the heart of the novel. And its theme of worldly life after worldly death certainly reflects the wishful thinking that takes place after any war—as one recalls its senseless and horrible death toll.

One should also note that Atkinson’s next novel, A God in Ruins, is to be about Ursula’s brother Teddy, who is shot down during World War II. He was Ursula’s favorite brother, and apparently of the author as well. One awaits learning whether Atkinson will explore that war further, or whether she has something else in mind—even, again, the theme of endless death. Indeed, one wonders if a final, incongruous appearance of Teddy in this novel was written in order to set up this next 2015 work. One also wonders if the word God in the title has any significance. It would seem doubtful, based on the spiritual beliefs held in this novel. But…

To sum up, this is a novel about life, not about death. And a novel about this world, not the next. It works because of its solid family portrait and its vivid capture of the historic context, including but not limited to World War II. It certainly entices me to read more of Atkinson’s work. For the degree of control she has over her characters, which turned me off in Case Histories, here she uses to her advantage, as she integrates it into the structure of this excellent work. (February, 2015)

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