“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”
Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!
Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.
Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph
Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!
So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!
Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.
I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview
There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.
Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?
One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.
There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz
“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.
Yes it is.
Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!
Published – 5/2/13
Review Posted – 7/17/15
—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.
—–NPR – with Scott Simon
—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris