“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”
“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.
What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?
This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.
For me, three things stand out:
1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:
a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.
2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.
A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.
3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.
Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.
Become such as you are, having learned what is
… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.
Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.
She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.