In November 1930, Ursula Todd assassinates Adolf Hitler. Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910. She is stillborn. Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910. The doctor has arrived at Fox Corner, the Todd family home, during a blinding snowstorm. He is just in time to save the baby with the cord wrapped around her neck.
In Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, Ursula Todd lives her life again and again. This isn’t Groundhog Day, though; some of these lives have only the slightest differences, while others diverge wildly. Her family—father Hugh; mother Sylvie; siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy, and Jimmy; Aunt Izzie; as well as the cook Mrs. Glover and maid Bridget—gives Ursula’s story continuity, grounds her in a reality more specific than time and place. Her deaths are never the same: She dies of blood loss, in a bombing, from carbon monoxide poisoning. She is murdered. She dies as a child; she dies of old age. She describes the experience as darkness falling, or as though she is being enveloped in the velvet wings of a large bat.
Ursula is unaware of what’s happening to her, yet she has a certain sense—déja vu, if you want to call it that, but really it’s more like a form of anxiety. Each time she lives through certain events, she feels compelled (sometimes) to either prevent something from happening or to make something happen, but she’s never sure why. It’s a strange sort of mix of logic and emotion that causes her to choose this and not that, to walk down one street instead of another, to quite literally take another path.
Much of the book is set in London or Germany during the years just before World War II and during the Blitz. We follow Ursula through all sorts of possible circumstances. Atkinson really creates a sort of plurality of experience through Ursula. We see all the ways a person might live during wartime, all the situations that might sweep her up or put her down, and we know that this particular reality represents so many lives.
Atkinson never burdens the reader with the mechanics of what’s happening to Ursula. She presents no discussions about it nor any reasons for it. When Ursula is ten, her mother Sylvie sends her to see a therapist. This seems rather progressive for someone like Sylvie, who cares much about propriety and convention, especially given that psychotherapy was not exactly common for children in 1920 (although it was not unheard of, either). Dr. Kellet is the only one with whom Ursula discusses these feelings—they are not experiences she knows are really happening—and he presents to her the idea of the ouroboros, the symbol of a serpent consuming its own tail that represents eternity and the continuity of life.
Atkinson brings her trademark wit to the story as well, which is a good thing because without it Life After Life would be a rather dark book. Ursula is able to live life over and over again, although she cannot control it. She corrects past mistakes without knowledge. And in the end, she always dies. The primary message here, although told in an interesting way, is that life always gets us in the end—or death, depending on how you want to look at it.
It took me some time to get into Life After Life, I’ll admit. At first I was a little bit lost with all the going back and forth, and I missed some of the subtle differences. This is probably the first time I can fault the Kindle; if I’d had a traditional book, I could have easily flipped back and forth, but going back and forth on the Kindle is no easy business.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reader’s copy of Life After Life in Kindle format from Net Galley. Life After Life will be published in the U.S. on April 2, 2013.