Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

“There were doorways between this world and the next.”

In 2012, one of my books-of-the-year was J. Robert Lennon’s remarkable novel,  Familiar–the story of an ordinary woman who finds herself in a parallel universe in which her troubled son didn’t die. Should she be happy about this instant, inexplicable transplant? Well yes, but just because one bad thing didn’t happen doesn’t mean that her ‘new’ life is altogether better….Anyway Familiar is a novel that deserves a lot of readers and a lot more attention than it received. And now on to another novel that also deals with the very difficult idea of alternate lives–an intriguing novel that has received an avalanche of positive criticism: Kate Atkinson’s  rich, imaginative Life After Life.

Life after lifeI’d read a few of Kate Atkinson’s earlier novels, and from the plot description, I was intrigued but also just a little skeptical. This is the story of Ursula Todd who initially is born and dies on a bitterly cold, snow-filled night in the year 1910. Birth and death. It’s a short chapter. But then subsequent chapters offer alternate scenarios with Ursula surviving by some miracle of timing. Given the date of her birth, of course she lives through WWI and WWII–although once again different scenarios in chapters covering specific dated blocks of time follow Ursula’s life as she reaches certain crossroads, makes certain choices, sometimes dying by some fluke accident or swept up as a statistic of history.

Ursula grows up to be a very unusual child and an equally unusual young woman. Ursula is taken to see Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist at one point after a particular strange incident, and he suggests to Ursula that “perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think you are repeating experiences.” Ursula, much later in the novel, in another version of her life tells Dr Kellet that “time isn’t circular… it’s like a palimpsest.”

Life After Life, to be honest, isn’t the easiest book to review. Normally one can tread through a certain amount of plot, but in this case, too much plot detail will reveal too much. There were several occasions, I felt tempted to trace out a timeline of Ursula’s various lives, choices and deaths, but I was wrapped up in the story, I didn’t want to analyze it too much, and there is a sort of magic to this sort of highly imaginative narration. Is this science fiction? Is this a story of parallel universes? Or is this one giant ‘what-if’? Laced with intriguing ideas including déjà-vu, destiny & fate, reincarnation, and Nietzsche’s amor fati, this is a novel that embraces all possibilities. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to nail down exactly what happens with time and fate in the novel. As a reader, you either accept it or not. Sort of reminds me of Terminator– logic doesn’t apply; it’s the story that counts. Author Kate Atkinson grants Ursula just an inkling that she’s somehow ‘different,’ and those parallel lives, created by alternate choices, are sensed, rather than known, as they whisper, close in the shadows “through a glass darkly”:

Everything familiar somehow. “It’s called déjà vu,” Sylvie said. “It’s trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery.” Ursula was sure that she could recall lying in a baby carriage beneath the tree. “No,” Sylvie said, “no one can remember being so small,” yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, tuning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. “You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.” Ursula didn’t know if this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear–fearful terror–that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. “Don’t dwell on such things, ” Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain. “Think sunny thoughts.”

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur–if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

While this is a very clever novel that presents some intriguing possibilities about alternate lives, for this reader, the novel’s strength is rooted in its incredibly good characterisations. Ursula is the third of five children whose parents are Sylvie and Hugh Todd–a golden family whose permanent, idyllic country home at Fox Corner, replete with relatives, friends, dogs and servants, is the sort of loving, supportive environment that breeds individuality and contentment.  The novel covers over 50 years of history with various scenarios, various choices made played out against the two world wars, and although fate and history may be changed by a moment’s decision, Fox Corner remains a stable presence in the midst of global madness and upheaval. Ursula is, of course, the central character, and the choices she makes–some crucial and some deceptively simple, directly influence her various lives and lovers, but the fates of various characters in the Todd family circle also change with each of Ursula’s lives. The family’s irrepressible black sheep of the family, Isobel, Izzie, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” is by far my favourite character.

One of the great appeals of this ultimately optimistic novel can be explained in its call to our collective subconscious. For who among us has not, upon occasion experienced a sense of déjà vu–a feeling that we’ve been in a certain place or met a certain person before, and who has not wondered about the paths our lives would have taken if we’d turned a corner just a few seconds later? How often have you thought of an alternate self, a self that might have been if you’d made a different decision?

She had obscure memories of elation, of falling into darkness, but they belonged to that world of shadows and dreams that was ever present and yet almost impossible to pin down.

I’m not the only one who finds Atkinson’s latest phenomenal. Here’s Kevin’s review and also one from a long-time friend.

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9 Comments

Filed under Atkinson Kate, Fiction

9 responses to “Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

  1. Brian Joseph

    I have always liked these alternative life/universes stories. I do think that they are more effective when they are logically consistent and make sense at least in terms of their internal story rules. When they are presented intelligently all the better.

    • The author had firm control over the narrative–a good thing and not easy I’d imagine. Essential though with all this hopping back and forwards in time.

  2. I was surprised at first to see she wrote a novel about alternate realities, coming from her i would read pretty much everything but this happens to be atopic I’ve liked since I’ve read Sartre’s play Les jeux sont faits (The Chips Are Down) in school. It’s not really about alternate lives but about being give the possibility to live the same life again and find out whether one would do it differently.
    I still have two other Atkinson novels but will get to this soon I hope. And Familiar as well.

    • I think this lands on the ‘getting it right’ more than alternate realities, but it ultimately didn’t matter. After all, it’s all the work of the imagination. I think you’d really like it.

  3. I think you make a very good point that most of the reviews have overlooked in your concluding paragraphs: One of the things that Atkinson does very well with her unusual “dying” technique is use it to enhance the depth of her portrayal of all the characters in the novel, not just Ursula. Once I got used to Ursula dying and starting over (and I think the author does that a lot early in the book just to get the reader used to it), I began to realize how each “restart” in the story also was being used to look at every character, not just Ursula, from a slightly different point of view. Certainly for the last half of the book, I felt I was engaged on a journey (well, a number of versions of a journey) with a very engaging bookfull of interesting characters. I can see why discussion of the conceit has dominated reviews (and I am sure will fuel book club discussions) but for me it does miss the real strength of the novel.

    (Aside: Have you seen the Scottish TV production of Case Histories based on her Brodie novels? In some ways, it illustrates my point about Atkinson and her characters — we thought the stories and productions were excellent, but were bowled over by how well cast the series was. Partly, of course, that is because the author gives the actors so much to work with.)

  4. Probably because I just finished a book on the du Mauriers, they were in my head when I read about the Todd family. Maurice, of course, is the unpleasant one, but overall they seem to be a very unique bunch of people, delightful to be around in their various manifestations.

    Yes I have seen Case Histories and enjoyed it very much indeed. Series 2 will be out soon. Can’t help but be very optimistic about where Atkinson will go after Life after Life. This was a leap and I bet there’s more to come.

  5. My wife has just ordered a copy of this for her reading group and I will probably read it when sheba finished with it. Your review suggests to me that while it has many strengths I may find it a slightly frustrating experience

  6. I’ve never read anything by her and I’m intrigued by your review.
    Have you seen the film Groundhog Day? There’s this man who keeps on living the same day again and again.

    For me, along with what you mention in your last paragraph, there’s also the issue of life being something you go through without a draft version. I don’t know how to explain this in English. This novel seems to explore the possibilities we’d have if we were allowed to draft versions of our life. Try something, it doesn’t work, turns out ugly, erase the decision and start from scratch.
    What you describe, the tiny detail, the tiny decision that changes your path and then your life is what Hardy points out in Life’s Little Ironies. It looks like fate because the decision is tiny and made without a conscious decision-making process but it’s still your choice that influenced your future.

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