Life After Life

Kate Atkinson

Little Brown & Co.

She was eager to get on and earn her independence rather than be cloistered in another institution. “Time’s winged chariot, and all that,” she said to her parents.

“Well, we all get on,” Sylvie said, “one way or another. And in the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.”

It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point.”

                             from  Life After Life


Time and time again

Life After Life opens with the heroine assassinating Adolf Hitler. It’s 1930. Not bad for a beginning.

When a novel starts this way you know that either you are setting out on an extraordinary journey of the imagination, or the novelist has an abysmal sense of history. In the case of Kate Atkinson (Case Histories), it’s clearly the former.

On February 11, 1910, Ursula Todd is born, and dies at birth (No breath. All the world come down to this.) In the very next chapter, she is born on February 11, 1910 (“A bonny, bouncing baby girl”) to live a full life, or several.

Probably most people have wondered: What if I had married that person rather than this one; if I had accepted that job; if I had taken more risks; if I had played it safer; if I had chosen differently. Life is a series of daily choices, with extenuating circumstances and unforeseen consequences. This is a novel about the great What Ifs of history and our personal lives.

Ursula is an odd duck, out of step with time and her family much of the time (“Try not to be precocious,” Sylvie sighed. “It’s a not a pleasant thing in a girl.”) and her life contains different scenarios with vastly different consequences. When she’s sixteen, she is casually raped by a friend of her older brother, and she grows up to be a timid woman who marries an abusive husband, who winds up killing her.

Take two: As a sixteen year old girl, she punches her brother’s friend in the jaw as he tries to kiss her, and he winces away. Same girl, different story; different life.

The book been compared to the film Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character awakes each morning to live the day all over again. But Atkinson’s story rather suggests parallel universes, as if Ursula were living all these lives simultaneously. In one, she is an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz; in another, she is huddling with her small daughter in Berlin as the Russians approach. In its imaginative reach, the novel, I think, more closely resembles Slaughter House 5—“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Typically, life comes with regrets—for what we did or didn’t do, and with the knowledge that we could have chosen differently, accomplished more, been better persons. It is a kind of consolation of the imagination to think that, maybe in some other universe, we were.

And that in that universe Hitler never lived to become Chancellor of Germany.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.