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There was a terrible snowstorm on the eleventh of February, 1910. Thick enough to render the roads impassible, it prevents both doctor and midwife from reaching the bedside of Sylvie Todd and thus her daughter, Ursula Beresford Todd, born with the umbilical cord around her neck, never draws breath. Very sad, but never mind. Turn the page and it is February 11 once again. This time, the snow has held off long enough to allow the doctor to arrive "in the nick of time" as he crows. The cord is snipped, the baby breathes, and Ursula Todd is launched into the world. Not, however, for the last time, for she will die and be reborn on a number of occasions before Kate Atkinson is finished with her.
For Ursula Todd was born to witness the great, terrible flow of history in the twentieth century from the aftermath of the Great War until the end of the Second. To witness and, at least once, to try to alter its course, to save the lives of millions, by assassinating Adolph Hitler. Comparisons to the Bill Murray film Ground Hog Day crop up frequently, especially in the American reviews, but they mislead. Ursula is not stuck in a time loop, condemned endlessly to repeat an empty life. She may die and be born over and over, but each return is to a different life, a life confined within certain parameters but by no means the same old, same old.
The psychiatrist, Dr Kellet, to whom she is sent when she is ten, offers her two not altogether useful notions to help her make sense of her belief that she has died and been born more than once. The first is fairly obvious - a Buddhist notion of reincarnation. The second, perhaps less so, he draws from Nietzsche - amor fati , which the child hears as "a more fatty," and which the doctor, himself suffering from the irreparable grief of the loss of his only son at Arras in 1917, defines as "a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither good nor bad." What comes to Ursula in the course of her many lives is always a consequence first of her gender, as she is, variously: pregnant as a consequence of rape, a student in a secretarial college, an abused wife, an occasional mistress, married and mother of a daughter, a single woman who "helped pave the way for women in the civil service." Though Ursula thinks, "Not that senior. Not in charge."
LIFE AFTER LIFE appears to me less a series of eternal returns than of parallel universes, simultaneously flickering side by side, in which quite tiny events can have enormous consequences, in a domestic application of the butterfly effect. When Ursula is young, she can catch the odd glimpse of the alternatives and act to make a difference. Later, she may be haunted by a foreboding, but is powerless to do very much about the outcomes.
There is much that is permanent in her experience, however. Her family in particular remains unchanged from life to life at least as far as character goes. Her mother, married at seventeen, mother of three by twenty-four, is unyielding in her belief that biology is destiny and Ursula's is to be a good wife and mother. Her father is very far from the conventional Edwardian paterfamilias, as he is immensely sweet and forgiving of much. Her outrageous, wonderful Aunt Izzie is, for all her Bohemian flightiness, a rock when Ursula needs her. Her elder sister Pam fulfils her mother's dictum but somehow manages it without a loss of self. Ursula is closest to the other "little bear" among the foxes, her younger brother Teddy, whom she saves from death at least once and perhaps twice. Only the eldest son, Maurice, is unlovable and unloved. One can only wonder if it is his unfortunate position in the birth order that condemns him to the exalted sense of self importance that at least in the days of primogeniture inclined to adhere to the first-born male.
The history of the war years tends to be told from a male perspective with women relegated to supporting roles. But in this novel, it is the lives of women that are central, with Ursula playing out a range of possibilities. Some of the strongest, most engaging passages occur in the stories of Ursula's war - as a victim of a bomb in the London Blitz, or as an air raid warden trying to offer what aid she can as walls crumble and fires rage and babies die. Or as a widow with a young daughter in the wreck of Berlin as the Russians approach, there because Ursula once married a German who later died on the Eastern Front. The moral centre of the warden narratives is Miss Woolf (many of the characters bear animal names, including, of course, the Todds). She is a retired hospital matron who had run a field hospital in the Great War and is absolutely clear-eyed about what she is doing: "We cannot turn away," she tells Ursula. "We must get on with our job and we must bear witness....It means we must remember these people when we are safely in the future." Ursula asks, "And if we are killed? Miss Woolf has the answer and it comes as close as anything to suggesting what the book is ultimately about: "Then others must remember us." It isn't a great deal, after all, but when it is Atkinson who is doing the "remembering" it is far from nothing.
Readers who know Kate Atkinson through her Jackson Brodie detective novels will immediately recognize some familiar landmarks. Ursula's father Hugh is implanted in the lost pastoral England that Brodie carries in his head and both men are deeply loving. Dogs are central to much that happens. A little girl is sometimes raped and killed. If Emily Dickinson was the poet of STARTED EARLY, then John Donne presides over LIFE AFTER LIFE. Along, of course, with tag lines from Churchill's wartime speeches and Vera Lynn lyrics which serve as frequently ironic section headings.
Familiar too is Atkinson's refusal to let the reader rest in any firm conclusion. Teddy at one point asks Ursula, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?" You would think so, but when in "The Broad Sunlit Uplands" Atkinson provides a life where it finally does come right, we have difficulty believing in it, whereas the lives that end in disaster are all too easy to credit and considerably more involving.
Clearly, LIFE AFTER LIFE is not a crime novel within even the most elastic definition of the genre except insofar as it documents many of the great crimes that constitute history in the 20th century. But readers who have delighted in Atkinson's four detective novels will delight in this as well. It is dazzling, brilliant, and demanding. It respects the reader in the way that little contemporary fiction rarely does, looking us straight in the eye and inviting us to follow where it will lead, then never looking back to see if we are keeping up. And it's probably the best, most exhilarating thing I've read in years.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2013
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