No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
It’s February 11, 1910, and before Sylvie Todd’s daughter could even take a breath, her life was over. Her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and the doctor stranded in a snowstorm, the infant child “stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky.”
But perhaps not. Turn the page and it’s February 11, 1910, once again. The doctor is there, telling Mrs. Todd that she has “bonny, bouncing baby girl.” In her fifth summer, the child, Ursula, drowns. And we return to that February day in 1910, to begin again.
Kate Atkinson’s new novel, due to be published April 2 in the U.S., follows Ursula through one life after another—some tragically short, others long and tragic. The basic setting always remains the same. She’s the third child of Hugh and Sylvie Todd, born on a snowy night in 1910. And as she proceeds through her many lives, she develops a feeling of déjà vu, an intuition about what’s gone before that causes her to, for example, push the scullery maid down the steps to keep her from going to London where the influenza is raging. Her parents worry about her, but her feelings are never explained, and eventually she learns not to talk about them.
Ursula’s gift is not really the subject of the book. Atkinson never explains it, and Ursula herself isn’t entirely conscious of it. This ability or sort of life is really a vehicle for getting at the many different paths a life can take. Haven’t we all wondered what would have happened if we’d chosen a different college, dated a different person, even decided differently about something so trivial as which street to go down or which restaurant to go to? It’s not an uncommon subject for fiction. I think immediately of the films Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day, which, while not exactly the same in concept, do tread similar ground.
One of the fascinating things about this book was seeing which actions made a difference and which didn’t–and what sort of difference they made. Certain people almost always turn up; others appear only in one version of her life. Her personality is affected by some events, while others barely touch the essence of who she is. I expect that’s not unlike real life. A relationship that happens when you’re 16 years old is likely to have a much greater effect on who you become than a relationship that begins when you’re in your 20s. And small choices, such as whether to take a particular path home, can have tremendous unforeseen consequences when there’s a killer lurking.
For the most part, Atkinson handles Ursula’s various lives with subtlety, trusting readers to recognize the significant moments and allowing them to speculate on why each life is different. There was one thread, involving a sexual assault, that I thought was a trifle heavy-handed, but I still read it with my heart in my throat, yearning for a different outcome. And as I read recent headlines about violence against women, I think that perhaps this is a story where a heavy hand is still needed. Plus, by letting Ursula live the experience again, Atkinson gives her a chance to seize power back, when she couldn’t before. She tells the story of a victim’s disempowerment and that same victim’s empowerment.
Perhaps even more interesting is Atkinson’s melodramatic set-up to the book. The very first chapter introduces us to Ursula in 1930 in a German cafe, drawing a gun and pointing it at the heart of a man she calls Führer. That incident hangs over the rest of the book. With each life, I wondered whether this was the time I’d see the build-up and the outcome. Most of Ursula’s lives give no hint that this moment could be her destiny, although as the book goes on, we start to see the possibility take shape. She meets a German man in one life. In another, she learns to shoot. We see the skills building. And I think that opening, as frustrating as it was in some respects, could give readers motivation to keep going through the early chapters, when the repetition required to establish the pattern could feel tedious. (It didn’t to me, but I can see how it would to others.)
When the big moment does finally happen, I was surprised at how trivial it seemed in the grand scheme of Ursula’s lives. In fact, I was disappointed and felt the ending was anti-climactic. On reflection, however, I’ve changed my mind because I think Life After Life is not a novel about major world events but one about individual lives. Wars and epidemics and Fascist dictators only matter insofar as they touch individual lives, which of course they do. But they aren’t significant in themselves. The Blitz matters because it took lives, and it matters to Ursula because it took the lives of people she knew and gutted the city where she lived. (By the way, the scenes involving the Blitz were even more horrifying than those in Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch.) Making the book about a confrontation with Hitler would, in the end, detract from its power when it’s really about people living life after life.
As many of you know, I am a tremendous fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing (I started stalking Netgalley and Edelweiss for a review copy ages ago), and I’m pleased to see this book getting so much attention. Here in the U.S., it seems that many people are only aware of her Jackson Brodie books, and they’re far from the most popular crime novels going these days. I’m not sure that this is any better than her earlier, less well-known books, and I must admit that at first I missed the humor of Behind the Scenes of the Museum and Emotionally Weird. The third-person narrative voice here is more polished and smooth than the first-person narrations of her earlier books, and the writing lacks some of the personality I expect from Atkinson. I don’t want to give the impression that the writing is dull or lifeless, and I certainly don’t fault Atkinson for doing something different. It’s just that the voices of her quirky narrators were so central to my enjoyment of the earlier works that it took me by surprise to find a more neutral style here. It’s not a flaw, just an observation, and I kind of wonder whether new readers who now delve into her backlist will be taken similarly by surprise.