Snow. 11 February 1910, and Ursula Todd is born.
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.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
Her life is over before it begins, her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, her doctor stuck in the snow. That’s that.
Turn the page.
Snow. 11 February, 1910, and Ursula Todd is born again. This time, Dr. Fellowes arrives before the snow closes the roads, and is able to snip the strangling umbilical cord. Ursula draws breath, a healthy baby girl, daughter of Hugh and Sylvie Todd. When she’s five, Ursula’s sister Pammy takes her out beyond her depth at the seaside.
No one came. And there was only water. Water and more water. Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky.
Turn the page.
Snow. 11 February, 1910. And so on.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, follows Ursula Todd through one of her lives after another. Some of them are only moments long; some of them last for decades before they come to an end and begin again in snow. After a while, Ursula begins to develop a sense of deja vu about the things that affect her most negatively, and to have a sort of existential dread that forces her to change the outcome of her life: to take another, safer path back from berry-picking, for instance, or to find some way to make her maid stay home from Armistice-Day celebrating. She learns not to talk about these feelings. It only worries her family. (Her family is one of the great things about this book: her gloomy mother Sylvie, father Hugh, awful brother Maurice, glorious brother Teddy, loyal sister Pammy, more or less themselves life after life.)
One big thing Atkinson is doing in this novel, of course, is playing with the idea of what it would be like to be able to do things again, differently, perhaps right this time. What would happen if we chose different friends, or a different education, or if a parent or a sibling died, or if we had saved money instead of traveling? In one long section, Ursula is the victim of a rape, and the consequences reel out in her life with the dismaying not-quite-predictability of disempowerment and despair. In the next life, a hearty slap discourages the rapist before he even gets close, and things turn out very differently: Ursula takes her power back, life is worth living again. (What a thing it is to be rooting for your protagonist to die, so that she can live.)
Another thing that Atkinson is doing wonderfully, cleverly, in this book is playing with form. Obviously this isn’t a linear plot: instead, it loops back, to the beginning, and back again, and then back to when Ursula is five, and then back, several times, to when she’s seven, and then… Atkinson plays with the reader’s expectation that these loops are spiraling upward, to something better, perhaps to a climactic event that will stop the loops altogether, a la Groundhog Day. This expectation is tantalizingly set by the book’s prologue, December 1930, in which Ursula fires a gun at someone she calls Fuhrer. Is this it? Is this the purpose of all these lives, the thing she’s trying to get right, the reason she’s gone through so many iterations of being?
But this book is far more emotionally subtle than that. All these choices, all these variations on life, are not about the world events Ursula lives through and her effect on them (Armistice, the Blitz, VE Day.) Instead, they are about the effects of life on life after life: how individual people live in often-dire circumstances, how they choose when their choices make a difference. The looping is not an upward spiral, ready to become linear when Ursula achieves a set piece, but a fugue, played for the beauty of it, the triumph, the sadness, the courage.
I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s work for a long time — her delicious novels about weird families, like Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet, as well as her chaos-theory Jackson Brodie detective novels — and Life After Life was just so good. Novels that can do something clever and interesting with form and also tell me something real about people are a total treat, and this book was wonderful, wonderful.