Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, RRP£18.99/Arthur Reagan, RRP$27.99, 480 pages
When Ursula Todd senses she is walking along paths she has trodden before, when she encounters strangers who set off tremors of recognition, she is oddly accepting of how often this feeling comes upon her. But, then, who has not tried, and failed, to pin down a fluttering sense of déjà vu?
Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel, Life After Life, presents a protagonist who, starting with two simultaneous births – or versions of the same birth – in 1910, travels through the 20th century, leading many different lives. The memories persist, in other versions of herself: “She had been here before. She had never been here before.”
In 1918 young Ursula and her sister Pamela are told there is to be a surprise birthday party for their little brother. The poor girl has “no idea whether or not she had ever had a surprise party or even a party that wasn’t a surprise. The past was a jumble in her mind, not the straight line that it was for Pamela.”
Ursula is witness to events on the giant stage that we know to be fact; on the domestic scale, the successive versions of her lives are tweaked each time to divert catastrophe or heartbreak already suffered.
Atkinson opens the book in sensational style in 1930, with an out-of-the-blue version of adult Ursula pulling the trigger of her father’s wartime revolver in a Munich café, and assassinating Hitler. It is a beguiling scenario, of course: one woman lost; millions saved. But the bigger timeline of world events would be ruptured.
That particular skein of that particular life is a daydream, a chimera, a what if. Atkinson does not try again to have her protagonist change the course of international history: this is a prologue, a one-off. She is at her best writing on the solid ground of immutable events. She takes one version of Ursula through the Blitz, working as an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) warden amid vividly conjured carnage: “The capriciousness of high explosives never ceased to surprise Ursula”. Bits of the dead appear, the once solid rendered as fragmentary as Ursula’s many lives: “Some people were beyond recreation, of course – two men from the rescue squad were raking and shovelling lumps of flesh into baskets, another was scrubbing something off a wall with a yard brush.”
Throughout the book, characters’ irritating platitudes are quoted, often in parentheses – the “happy couple”; “practice makes perfect, dear” – but to what purpose? These frequent punctuations grate. Atkinson, who won the Whitbread prize for her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), is better than that.
In Life After Life we see a parade of earlier Ursulas as she – they – grow up at Fox Corner, the home established by her affluent parents: Hugh, first world war veteran and kindly banker, and Sylvie, mother of many and a woman who ages into a state of glorious snobbery. Ursula is raped in her home by a friend of her brother; the resulting pregnancy is dealt with by Hugh’s flamboyantly misbehaved sister Izzie. It is also here that Ursula is not raped by the same young man.
These familial narratives show Nancy, a neighbour’s child, murdered and thrown in a cattle trough. On another path, the killer is disturbed and Nancy lives on, oblivious to the peril averted.
On and on Ursula goes, aware yet not aware: she marries a man who helps her up when she trips in the street; he is a bully and a wife-beater. Other Ursula trips; the same voice, the same name: “She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past?”
Atkinson’s notion of life in this book is of a repetition with endlessly revised outcomes; weird circular collisions between futures that have already happened and presents not so subtly reworked. Many will love it: Atkinson is a best-selling author whose writing is deft and thoughtful. For this reader, however, it was hard to care about so many Ursulas; and the linear disorientation eventually felt tricksy, rather than complex.
Sue Norris is associate editor of FT Magazine