The strength of Kate Atkinson’s books is her prose. Time and again she serves up fantastically readable literary fiction. Even in crime fiction mode, she delivers razor-sharp observation on the vagaries of life. If, occasionally, her plotting lets her down, it is very easy to forgive thanks to the verve and poignancy of her writing.
Life after Life is a great departure from her recent Jackson Brodie novels, tipping ever so slightly in the direction of science fiction. Here we follow Ursula Dodd, born 11th February 1910. Died 11th February 1910. Shortest novel in the world? No. Life after Life is predicated on the simplest of questions: ‘What if…?’
As readers we are treated to one iteration after another of Ursula’s life. What if the doctor beat the snowstorm…? What if she’s rescued from drowning? What if she doesn’t let her Brother’s American friend roughly steal a kiss? What if she sneaks out to meet her sweetheart, what if she doesn’t? What if she marries a German? The novel even opens with that ultimate ‘What If?’ – What if somebody killed Hitler before he comes to power?
At a macroscopic level Life after Life could be considered disappointing. Lots of different stories, involving the same characters, but with no obvious overreaching narrative resolution. In the hands of a lesser author it’s easy to imagine it being an unholy mess. Delivered by Kate Atkinson, it’s a triumph.
By giving Ursula multiple lives, she can analyse so much more of the history and attitudes of the times. The treatment of women during the first half of the twentieth century is a huge theme. As are the changes and deprivations brought about by World War Two, both in Britain and in Germany. Life after Life contains some of the best depictions of War I have read, in particular, the relentlessness of the Blitz.
Atkinson’s characterisation, as ever, is tremendous. Ursula is beautifully drawn, as are the rest of her family, most notably her mother and aunt. It is this triumvirate that anchor the novel to its central theme; a feminine backbone formed from three very different women. The multiple stories allow Atkinson to explore her characters’ personalities from more than one perspective; we can see how they react to the same set of circumstances, but with different pressures. This leads to far rounder characters than one would find in a conventional narrative.
Further interest is generated by the use of déjà vu. In any given narrative, Ursula may experience a desperate feeling that something is amiss. A sense that she should or shouldn’t do something. More often than not this is to prevent a disaster from a previous narrative. The reader is in the know but Ursula isn’t, giving the novel’s strands additional coherence. But as strands are added an additional phenomenon occurs. Disaster may have been averted, but fresh ones lie further ahead; Ursula may have avoided personal misfortune but what of the consequences for her friends and family?
The assertion of the novel is that life is made from choices. Choices that have unpredictable consequences. We are all united by this. We make decisions every day but we have no idea how they will turn out. As the novel progresses questions about pre-destination and free will are posed. There are suggestions that some incarnations of Ursula can control their destiny; are aware of their myriad selves. This is where the strongest science fiction elements are found.
In essence it boils down to something like this – Given an infinite number of typewriters we can all kill Hitler. Whilst there isnt a single overreaching story that unifies all of Ursula’s incarnations, there is a central message to each of us. You only have one life, use it as wisely as you can. Life after Life is a thoughtful and informative novel. It’s heartbreaking time and time again, yet a joy to read. A terrific novel from a gifted writer bringing all her powers to bear.