Book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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LIFE After Life might be called a family saga, but inasmuch as it is that, it is a family saga with a difference.

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 477pp, £18.99

This is not surprising. Kate Atkinson is a daring as well as inventive and persuasive writer. The novel is founded on a conceit; that our lives might be rewritten, take a different shape, be wiped out at any moment, or might not have happened at all. So this novel, made up of distinct passages, with a narrative that moves forward and back in time, explores the different lives its heroine, Ursula, might have lived, – if , that is, she lived at all, surviving a difficult birth, the midwife who should have attended being prevented by being caught in a snowstorm. Described bluntly in this way, the novel might seem an exercise in fanciful whimsy, a piece of rather tired and indeed dated experimentalism. It isn’t that, for two reasons.

First, we must all sometimes be aware of how things might have turned out differently. You come to a fork in the road you are travelling, and choose to go right. That choice determines your immediate course. Everything afterwards is the consequence – who you marry – if, that is, you do marry, what career you follow – if that is, you have a career. But what if you had taken the other road? As it happens you didn’t, and the road of the other life exists only in your imagination as a might have been. Atkinson has prefaced her novel with three epigraphs. The first, from Nietzsche, is too long to quote here. The second from Plato reads: “Everything changes and nothing remains still.” The third is attributed to Edward Beresford Todd: “What if we had the chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” It is in vain to search for EB Todd in a dictionary of quotations; he is a character in the novel.

The second reason why Life After Life works entrancingly is that each of the many episodes, each of the alternative lives, is firmly rooted. The settings are realistic, the large cast of characters all well-drawn and the relations between them fascinating, the narratives absorbing, the dialogue sharp and lively. In other words each passage, in a narrative that extends from 1910 to 1967, though not in a straight line, rings true to life.

Ursula is the daughter of Hugh, a banker, and his sharp, well-read wife Sylvie. She is one of five children. They live in a rambling house called Fox Corner, within commuting distance from London. They are well-to-do, with a cook, Mrs Glover, and an Irish maid called Bridget, whom the child Ursula, in one version of her life, pushes downstairs, and is thought to have tried to kill, as a result of which she is sent to a “mind-doctor” who talks to her of reincarnation. (Incidentally the depiction of her parents’ marriage is extraordinarily good).

The first episode is set in November 1930. Ursula, a student in Munich, pulls a pistol on Hitler in a tea-room and fires. “Darkness falls”. How different would the world have been if… It’s a thought that must have come to many of us. But in another of her possible lives, she marries a German officer, becomes friends with Eva Braun and is a guest at the Fuehrer’s mountain home in Bavaria, before ending the war being bombed in Berlin.

War permeates the novel as it did the first half of the 20th century. Ursula experiences the Great War as a child: Mrs Glover’s son is gassed, but Hugh survives the trenches. “Always make sure you cover your head in a raid,” he tells Ursula when, in another version of her life, she endures the London Blitz, working as a civil servant and an ARP warden. The wartime scenes are vividly and appallingly realised. “Endure” is the word for many of Usula’s lives: she goes through a lot, as everybody did then. Some of the things that might have happened to her are appalling – a teenage rape and subsequent abortion, a disastrous marriage, a short spell of alcoholism. Others are delightful and funny. My admiration for Atkinson’s inventiveness and control is unbounded. It’s an utterly absorbing novel.

For the other extraordinary thing is that, despite the horrors, this is a warm and humane book. This is partly because the felt sense of life is so powerful and immediate. Whatever the setting, it has been thoroughly imagined. Most of the characters are agreeable. They speak well and often wittily. When, like Ursula’s eldest brother, Maurice, they are not likeable, they are treated in the spirit of comedy. The humour is rich. Once you have adapted yourself to the novel’s daring structure and accepted its premise that life is full of unexplored possibilities, the individual passages offer a succession of delights. A family saga? Yes, but a wonderful and rewarding variation on a familiar form.