Life After Life moves readers from detective Jackson Brodie, author Kate Atkinson’s appealing, bestselling hero of her past four novels, to a new, equally appealing heroine, the very English Ursula Todd, born 11 February 1910. Parents Sophie and Hugh have no idea their third child is unusual. Yet Ursula’s birthdate serves as Life After Life’s touchstone: each visitation to this day sees Sophie in bed without benefit of doctor or midwife. Her sole assistance a terrified teenaged maid.
Yet the scene alters a bit each time. Sometimes Ursula arrives blue, the cord wrapped round her neck. She dies, is saved by Sophie, by the doctor, by luck. Or she never draws breath. Each life follows a different trajectory.
Lionel Shriver’s The Post Birthday World and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife are recent examples of novels addressing lives lived multiply. Novelists ply their trade in the fields of ‘what if’, but Shriver, Niffenegger, and now Atkinson push the concept to its limits. Only Shriver’s Irina is mercifully oblivious as her creator alternates chapters between lives and loves: which man is best for Irina? In the end, it’s a toss-up, but the primary conflict is neither déjà vu nor jamais vu.
Niffenegger’s 2003 bestseller, also a love story, is considerably more harrowing, as narrator Henry is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder, an illness that sends him catapulting through time. Henry has no control over his situation, yet has perfect recall of his travels. He suffers both physically and mentally from his journeys, as does his wife, Clare.
Ursula Todd, however, experiences profound déjà vu, often moving her to behave oddly in contexts that, in other lives, would be appropriate. In childhood, this makes Ursula prone to inexplicable announcements and behaviors, concerning Sophie enough to take the child to a psychologist, the sympathetic Dr. Kellet. Kellet alone sees the truth, or parts of it.
Some aspects of Ursula’s life remain stable through time. Her relationship with her siblings is more than an expert depiction of family life; it’s an emotional exploration of the deep relationships possible between siblings, in this case, Ursula’s elder sister, Pamela, and their younger brother, Teddy. These loving bonds contrast harshly with the Todd children’s feelings for their eldest brother, Maurice. Maurice is a cruel, brutish child who grows into a callow, greedy adult. In a gesture of Atkinsonian humor, Maurice becomes a banker.
Where The Post-Birthday World and The Time Traveler’s Wife focus on romantic love, Atkinson, whose characters tend toward failed romances, turns her pitiless eye on war, offering a gruesome, unsparing account of war’s ravages, physical and psychological.
Ursula is a child during WWI. Hugh joins the ranks despite Sophie’s anger. Apart from Hugh’s absence and slightly lesser meals—cook Mrs. Glover is no Nigella at the best of times—the immediate family is intact. But friends and neighbors are less fortunate. Without giving away the plot, there are numerous fatalities close to home, disfiguring injuries, and men suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these poor souls can be found in Dr. Kellet’s office, where they are tenderly ministered to by his nurse. Others, who survive head injuries or gassing long before IED’s or TBI’s, depart strong and healthy only to return hopelessly brain damaged, their lives effectively over.
Given the lives she’s living, Ursula’s teen years are marked by trauma and joy. Young men are a source of joys and terrors; notably, Atkinson makes Ursula’s first crush, Benjamin Cole, a Jew.Ursula’s traumas are mitigated by Hugh’s sister, the audacious Izzie, whose fondness for the finer things, including men, gets her into occasional scrapes. Yet Izzie proves unexpectedly self-sufficient and stalwart in emergencies, the sort of aunt many teenagers long for. Izzie rescues Ursula in many ways, in many of her lives, neither of them the wiser.
Always gifted at characterization, Atkinson’s powers are only increasing. In Hugh we have a surprisingly accepting, affectionate parent capable of overcoming lingering Victorianism. The beautiful Sophie, who begins life wealthy, only to fall into teenaged poverty, is “rescued” by her marriage to Hugh. The couple initially seems quite happy, but as time passes and the children grow up, bitterness settles over Sophie like a mantle. The reasons for her unhappiness are never made clear, though Atkinson offers a few hints—but no more.
In this era of too much information, readers are left to wonder at Sophie’s deep anger. Atkinson’s refusal to spill all is one of Life After Life’s many gifts.
The largest portion of Life After Life is devoted to WWII. Ursula is an adult, living in various situations, sharing apartments with friends or a lover. She works the Ministry of Intelligence, performing “secret war work”, a careful tallying of the dead. At night, as the Germans relentlessly bomb London, she joins the neighborhood wardens, searching for and aiding the injured. It is here, in looping replays, that we see war in all its horrors. Atkinson is unsparing in detailing the impact of bombs, debris, and fires on the living and inanimate: humans old and young, animals (Life After Life sports a vivid set of canine characters), and some of London’s finest old architecture.
The acknowledgements section encourages readers to visit Atkinson’s website, where she goes into detail about the motivations for Life After Life:
“The Blitz may be the dark beating heart of the novel but it isn’t all about the war, I begin it—again and again—in 1910, the ghost of Forster always at my back. There was something hypnotic and dreamlike in returning endlessly, remorselessly, to what seems to us now (quite wrongly) to have been that prelapsarian period before the First World War—an Arcadian scene viewed through the lens of nostalgia (and Merchant Ivory films), before mechanized slaughter descended on the world . (The greatest ‘What if’, of all, of course, the staying of Princip’s gun hand at Sarajevo).”
I began this review saying Atkinson’s emphasis lay not with romantic love, but with war. And Atkinson does use the book as an opportunity to stay, if only in imagination, some of the hands that killed millions. Her’s an ambitious attempt that only the most talented writer could carry off.
Yet Life After Life resonates with familial love, and in moving romance aside, gives it a chance to shine. When the Life After Life reaches its close, both Ursula and readers are given an unexpected gift, one that helps lift the book from an explication of humankind’s endless capacity for cruelty. We are left with a small, shimmering bit of hope, which is the most one can ever expect from Atkinson, and by extension, from the world she so expertly depicts.