31 August, 2015

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Book review

Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0. 477 pages

Life After Life is set in England and Germany between 1910 and 1967, against the background of the First and Second World Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Ursula Todd, born into a prosperous family in rural England in 1910, lives her life over and over again through the traumatic events of the first half of the twentieth century. The first time she is born, she dies before taking her first breath. On the second occasion, the doctor has arrived in time and baby Ursula survives to experience childhood during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1919. On other occasions, she experiences the Second World War as a young woman, both in Germany in the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and in London during the Blitz. Each time, she is disturbed by bewildering flashes of deja vu – glimpses into the past, present and future of alternative lives – but without fully understanding what they are. And in one of her lives she has a chance to change the course of history...

Most people, I imagine, have had occasions when they wonder about ‘the road not travelled’, and speculate on what might have happened if they had done X instead of Y at a particular point. Life After Life explores that concept, by allowing the central character to live her life many times over, each time taking a different path. Each cycle starts with her birth in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910, and each ends with the words ‘Darkness fell’. In one life she experiences a violent marriage; in others she avoids the events that led her to that marriage and develops other relationships. One life takes her to 1930s Germany, where she becomes friendly with Eva Braun and, through Eva, acquainted with a fringe politician called Adolf Hitler. Sometimes the different paths diverge wildly, sometimes many paths all lead to the same or very similar endings (several end at the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic, and several more end during the Blitz).

For me, by far the strongest part of the novel was the central section set in London during the Second World War. Ursula is an adult woman by then and experiences the Blitz in various ways during several of her lives. It is a dramatic and convincing portrayal of life for ordinary people, being bombed out of their homes, working in rescue services, fire-watching, and vividly describes the everyday privations, the many ghastly ways to suffer and die, the numbing effect of witnessing repeated horrors, and the random nature of events, where running after a stray dog can make the difference between living – for another day at least – and dying. These scenes are so convincing that I wonder if they might be based on eyewitness accounts. The novel is well worth reading for this section alone.

The cyclical nature of the narrative can be repetitive or rhythmic. Which it is probably depends on the reader and/or the reader’s mood. Sometimes arriving at the same place yet again borders on the tedious; on one occasion the author writes ‘Darkness, and so on’, instead of the usual ‘Darkness fell’, leading me to wonder if she herself was getting a little weary at that point. Ursula is by far the dominant character, since she is the central figure in every cycle, whereas some of the secondary characters appear in only one of the lives and are never seen again. Those secondary characters who are recurring figures, such as Ursula’s immediate family, are developed into distinct personalities. It would be difficult to confuse Ursula’s brothers Maurice and Teddy, for example.

I have to say that I was not much taken with the central premise of living one’s life over and over again until one ‘gets it right’. What counts as ‘getting it right’? Living as long as possible? As happily as possible? What if the other people involved have a different idea of ‘getting it right’? And so on. On the other hand, ignoring the value judgment implied in ‘getting it right’, it’s interesting to watch events play out in different ways as Ursula encounters different people and situations. In a few cases she consciously influences events by taking a definite action or making a different decision, seemingly based on a hazy recollection of one of her other lives, though for the most part it seems that the changes in her various lives happen without her having to do anything.

Beautifully written tale with an unusual cyclical structure, memorable mainly for the dramatic sequences set in the London Blitz during the Second World War.