Life After Life is worth reading again and again

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  • Little Brown
On February 11, 1910, an unusually snowy night for southeastern England, a baby girl is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The roads are impassable; the doctor has still not arrived. She dies. But wait! On February 11, 1910, an unusually snowy night for southeastern England, a baby girl is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Fortunately the doctor, armed with surgical scissors, was able to make it out before the roads were blocked. The baby survives. Her mother names her Ursula. And she lives quite happily until the summer of 1914 when she and her sister drown at the seaside, whereupon she (and we) return once again to that snowy night in 1910.

The premise of Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life (available in paperback on Tuesday) is that Ursula Todd will continue to live the same life, with variations, over and over again. Some of those variations are beyond her control: on her second trip through 1914, a good Samaritan will run into the surf and save her from drowning. Others—like the family maid's 1918 trip to London to celebrate the Armistice, during which she will contract the Spanish flu that will shortly kill both her and Ursula (and sometimes Ursula's beloved younger brother Teddy)—are preventable, though it will take Ursula five deaths to figure out how to do it.

Briefly described, Life After Life sounds like a cross between a video game or the sort of brain loop you get into at 3 AM where you can't stop thinking about all the things you would change if life had a do-over option. That sounds gimmicky (and also tedious, reading the same scenes over and over), but Atkinson transforms it into a meditation on families and history and all the different ways a life can develop. It's also, in parts, hilarious.

Atkinson kindly spares us the tedium of reading the same scenes over and over by giving Ursula a sense, after her first few lives, that she has been here before. Certain things—a neighborhood in London, the sight of a hoop rolling on the beach—spook her for no reason, and she has memories of things she can't possibly have experienced yet. A kindly psychologist whom she visits after a particularly violent, though successful, attempt to escape death by flu, introduces her to the notion of reincarnation and the circularity of time. But many lives later she decides he's wrong. "Time isn't circular," she tells him. "It's like a . . . palimpsest."

Atkinson doesn't push the metaphysics of Ursula's reincarnation too hard, which is probably a good thing; too much theorizing would spoil the story, particularly when she hints that Ursula isn't the only one who has lived the same life multiple times. Instead, she turns the book itself into a palimpsest, writing one version of Ursula's life on top of what came before. Part of the fun of the book is seeing the same events from different perspectives and watching Ursula approach them in new ways.

Kate Atkinson
  • Euan Myles
  • Kate Atkinson
Some of the changes are major: in one life, a friend of her brother's rapes her on her 16th birthday, setting up the saddest and most painful of her lives; in the next, she punches him in the face and becomes what we would call "empowered." Others are smaller: somehow, the purchase of a new dress leads to a "teetering" lover falling in her favor. And some events seem inevitable: no matter which decisions she makes, even years in advance, she can't seem to avoid a certain London basement during the Blitz.

The Blitz chapters, by the way, are among the most vivid in the book, particularly the details—a crying baby, Ursula passing an older woman in the stairs, a lost dog in a doorway—that show through life after life. (Members of America's "Greatest Generation" have nothing on their British counterparts.) Other lives that veer from the usual path—notably the one where Ursula marries a German and ends up stranded in Berlin for the duration of World War II—are more dreamlike and unbelievable. (I mean, in the context of a book where a woman lives the same life at least 20 times.) But maybe that's the point: for Ursula, there was nothing in that life worth repeating, no details worth reinforcing, so it will remain vague, except for a few fleeting memories and a grandiose notion that maybe she could put herself into position to assassinate Hitler and prevent World War II.

(Does she? Probably not. The war and the Blitz happen again in the next life, but she's also somehow spared herself some of the most devastating personal losses from other lives.)

For me, Life After Life could have gone on forever with infinite variations. Instead I have to resort to rereading it. (And also maybe Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which deals with similar themes of family and memory and is also filled with seemingly effortless historical detail of British life during the first half of the 20th century.) Like Ursula's lives, it improves with repetition.

(This happened to be the second book called Life After Life that I read in 2013. The first was Dr. Raymond Moody's investigation into near-death experiences. Jill McCorkle also published a book called Life After Life that came out around the same time as Atkinson's. My only New Year's resolution is to read it to get a perfect trifecta of lives after lives.)

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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