“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is an astonishingly hard to categorise book. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy. And probably properly classified as “literary fiction”. We follow the life of Ursula Todd, born on 11th February 1910 to a well-to-do middle class English family as she lives her life over & over again. Every time she dies she starts all over again, and each time things go a little differently. Atkinson tells the story through a series of vignettes of the key events in each life. It’s very much a book where the journey is the point rather than the destination, and the structure of it reinforces that. We loop back over & over to the snow of February 1910 where each time the same(ish) scene is told differently. At the end of each life the refrain is “Darkness fell” (or words to that effect).
At first each life lasts a little longer than the previous one as Ursula avoids the pitfalls of early childhood. Just as I was starting to wonder if Ursula could remember anything from life to life Atkinson started to make it clear that there was some leakage – Ursula would have a sense of deja vu or a sense of dread. Later the memories that carry from life to life are more complete & there’s a sense that Ursula can choose how things are going to go this time round. There’s also the way that Ursula chooses more adult solutions to problems in later lives – at first to successfully get past a death from influenza in 1918 she can only resort to pushing Bridget down the stairs when the sense of dread hits her. In a later go round she engineers a falling out between Bridget & her fiancé which is a much more subtle way of preventing the trip to London (and gets Ursula into a lot less trouble).
The book doesn’t end where I thought it would – neither way I thought it would end, in fact. At first I’d thought that perhaps we’d see her live longer & longer – getting past the knot of deaths of influenza in 1918, and through the Second World War (another knot of deaths). But the life where we see her make it to 1967 & retirement isn’t the end. Another ending that wasn’t the way it ended was when we looped back to the very first vignette in the book – which isn’t Ursula’s birth, it’s 20 year old Ursula assassinating Hitler. It’s the classic time travel theme – prevent the Second World War by killing Hitler. And we do loop back to that, and it’s clear that Ursula is doing this knowing the consequences of Hitler’s rule of Germany. Interestingly, it’s not precisely the same scene that opened the book, some of the details are different. So we’re not seeing all the lives that Ursula lives, just key ones to give a flavour of the possibilities (just like each life we only see the key moments). But this is not where the book ends, either.
Which left me feeling a bit like I’d missed something with how the book did end. One of the phrases running through the book is “Practice makes perfect”, often said by Ursula’s mother. And there’s a strong impression that the last life we get a couple of scenes from is supposed to be the closest to perfection yet – Ursula’s mother manages to prevent Ursula’s death at birth despite the non-arrival of the doctor by having the right tools at hand. And Teddy, Ursula’s favourite brother, survives the war. Which implies that the war is somehow necessary? But then how would Ursula know – she doesn’t survive the assassination of Hitler either time we see it happen, so she doesn’t know if the world is better. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – maybe it’s just meant to be a sign that there isn’t an ending and Ursula will continue to live through all the possible permutations.
The characters are well drawn, and through the repeated lives you get to see how the core personality of each person stays the same but the way events fall out changes how that manifests. The centre of the story is always Ursula, but also prominent are Sylvie (her mother) and Izzy (her father’s younger sister) who are two opposing poles of role models for womanhood. Sylvie is a respectable housewife & mother whose whole self is poured into those roles. Izzy elopes at 16, she has a child out of wedlock, she writes novels & newspaper columns, she lives in London on her own. She is the epitome of the new freedom a single woman can have in the London of the 1920s & beyond. At first Sylvie seems the more sympathetic character, and Izzy to be rather selfish & scatty. But over the course of several lives Sylvie seems less selfless & a lot more concerned with appearances and with respectability, and Izzy is always there when Ursula needs someone.
This was a really good book. This time I’ve read it as a library book, but I think I might buy myself a copy – it’s a book that will be good to re-read. In particular later tellings of similar scenes often reveal a little more about some character’s motivations/personality so when you re-read you will get a bit of a richer experience. It seems apt that this is a story with themes of repetition with variation & of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s a book about which both of those things are true.