KATE Atkinson turns a morbid conceit into a life-affirming riddle, but it’s hard to take her history seriously, writes Hannah McGill
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
READING Kate Atkinson’s far from flippant new novel, I couldn’t help but flippantly recall the experience of watching the hospital soap Casualty back in its late-1980s heyday.
Every episode (I don’t know if it’s still the same now) would commence with people blithely windsurfing or doing DIY or lion taming, as the viewer wondered, heart in mouth, what gory misadventure would land which of them on the gurney, and who would and wouldn’t make it to the credits. For Life After Life has its protagonist Ursula approach – and make – many different exits from this life. Each time, in one branch of reality, she perishes; but in another, she gets to begin her stint in the world all over again, armed with faint recollections that steer her instinctively away from paths that have done for her before.
Along the way, like the wing-flaps of that hypothetical butterfly, her actions influence the survival or otherwise of others in her orbit – a power that, after many consecutive shoulderings of this mortal coil, she learns she can manipulate. Ursula is, in a very English kind of way, a sort of superhero, and like a superhero, she must she must bear the burden of being isolated on account of her uniqueness. Yet in another way, she is not unique at all, but a sort of everywoman whose repeated lives let her witness and experience a vast spectrum of the ways in which human beings can make each other suffer.
Certainly by having Ursula born in 1910 and alive (sometimes) through two world wars, Atkinson makes a trenchant point about just what extremes were endured by people of that generation; her evocation of the Blitz is particularly raw and haunting. The precarious proximity to death of which Atkinson demands we are aware from Ursula’s first demise, moments into her life, was their quotidian reality.
The constant presence of the grim reaper at these characters’ collective shoulders does make the book a bit wearyingly morbid. It might be hard work for people who really fear death a lot, or parents who don’t like to think about the daily risks with which the world surrounds their children. Yet Atkinson – in her Jackson Brodie crime novels as well as in stand-alone literary works like this – has a way of seamlessly combining her piercing awareness of injustice and pain with an almost daffy joie de vivre.
This book, which somehow registers as feelgood despite death stalking its every page, is no exception. Key to this is the love Atkinson invests in Ursula, who needs to be a very winning individual from her early childhood in order for us to invest in her as much as the layered narrative demands, and proves to be so. The people around her are vivid, too, even those who appear only briefly, and that’s crucial to steering a path through chapters that can omit or rediscover characters unexpectedly.
If the book’s conceit sounds complicated, it is, on paper. But Atkinson, like Audrey Niffenegger before her with the similarly ambitious The Time Traveller’s Wife, is a confident enough writer to bear her high concept along well above water level; and the stories, fragmented or interrupted as they can be, are gripping enough to distract you from analysing the theoretical intricacies too much.
Arguably, however, the book loses something when it shifts Ursula’s concerns from the personal and familial to the global – to intervention in the rise of the Third Reich. (It’s not been unknown, of course, for superheroes to take on Nazis – they did it quite a lot in the 1940s – but it does tend to muddy their simple do-gooding, and mess with the suspension of disbelief, when they get themselves mixed up in real world affairs.)
The very extreme endpoint of Ursula’s adventures feels like a bit of a betrayal of the mood of the rest of the book; well-written though its build-up is, it moves Ursula and her odd experience of life into another register, a more cartoonish and less intimate one. The characters, placed amid such imposing iconography, struggle to keep sounding real. (“What is it, do you suppose – mass hysteria of some kind?” asks one, upon observing a Nazi rally. Which a shrewd observer might have said, at the time, one supposes; but here, clothed all in hindsight, it feels too knowing and too easy, and somehow doesn’t ring true.)
The nature of Ursula’s destiny, the use to which she ultimately decides to put her powers, might have operated as a clever shock, a sly trick on the reader, had the structural decision not been taken to flash forward to Ursula’s entrance on to the world stage at the very start of the book – meaning that we always know where all of this is going.
So maybe Life After Life makes more of its concept than it needed to. It’s better when it’s small-scale and close-up, than when it ups its butterfly effect to hurricane conditions. But all of these lives are memorable; and the woman who lives them is a compelling survivor, however many times she plays the casualty.