Life After Life is a stoically British novel that twirls like a kaleidoscope in your mind as Ursula Todd jumps from life to life like a literary Groundhog Day. It is difficult to surmise whether Atkinson’s latest novel grounds itself in contemporary fiction or whether we should place it within speculative fiction. After all, this is a novel about being able to live your life again and again until you get it right. It that respect, I read it as speculative because although it is grounded in our world, Ursula wields a power that is decidedly inhuman.
It all begins in the snow. A baby girl is born and dies instantly. However, as this happens a different tale is told elsewhere. The baby survives in this other life, she is called Ursula and she will have to fight her hardest to achieve all that she wants. Throughout her life she is presented with situations in which her life is in danger. With the novel set during both World Wars there is plenty to avoid for this young woman as she finds her bearings in life. She makes decisions that are wrong but could be undone and she becomes the target of despicable people.
It is in this latter instance that Atkinson explores more than this idea of ‘repairing’ your life. Here we get a grip on what it was like to be a woman in the early 20th century and how oppressed they were by certain classes of society. Because, at its roots, this is a novel about what defines us and sets us apart from others. In one version of events Ursula believes she has met the man of her dreams and things go from bad to horrific and in another she lives a darker life after an encounter with a young man on the back staircase of her house on her sixteenth birthday.
This is a novel to break your heart in the familiar groundhog repetition. We watch as Ursula dies in many upsetting ways and her character and the bond between her and the reader grows with each passing. The rest of the cast are pillars on which rests Ursula, held up for her importance and her worth to us as readers. She is an intricate and beautiful character who is utterly fragile until she gets an idea of what she is doing with her lives. Even then, she cannot escape simple twists of fate.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moments in the novel that emotionally affected me the most, because it would require spoiling certain plot points. What Atkinson has created is a complex web of storylines that could tumble like a house of cards if just one card is shown.
The depths in which the author journeys to immerse the audience are astounding. Every ‘life’ of Ursula’s creates a bond in some way to the reader. One that comes to mind for me is where Ursula volunteers during the Blitz and has to search for people in the wreckage of London. It is in the passages as Ursula hauls dead bodies and stray limbs that Atkinson displays the nuances of being human. That same can be said for the section when Ursula is looking up at her block of flats as she lies within the rubble. They are beautifully grotesque and emotionally powerful moments.
To go back to something I said in the opening sentence, this is a very British novel. But I wonder if Atkinson is perhaps using this attitude to mock the way we as a society look at things. Or whether she is using it to show how strength can be found anywhere? We see it over and again as the cast drink tea, bluster onwards and display that stiff upper lip. While they can be proud of the Blitz spirit it evoked, there is a darker side to this upper lip where women hid their “shame” at certain situations.
Simon Savidge, of The Readers, initially stated (before reading the novel) that he believed this novel will do the rounds come award season. After reading it, I can only agree. Atkinson has crafted a novel that will one day be seen as a classic and I’m glad that I have been a part of the future of the book.
Published by DoubleDay. This book was kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.