What a fascinating book. Few novels kill off its main character on the first page. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is the story of Ursula Todd who lives through the early 20th Century again and again.
Having been strangled at birth by her own umbilical cord, Ursula goes on to be dealt further fatal blows by a suffocating cat, an icy roof, an ocean current, a bout of Spanish flu and a Luftwaffe bomb, to name but a few. Careless to say the least. But, as with all good books, I was soon suspending reality and enjoying the twists and turns of a very well told story.
And it is well told. Kate Atkinson’s evocation of a pre-war suburban childhood or of living through the Blitz are vivid. Similarly, Ursula’s marriage to a violent husband is harrowing but, as a reader, I took solace knowing she would be back and would get another go at life.
My biggest problem with the book was that Ursula’s task was to assassinate Hitler. It made me suspicious in the same way that people who claim to be reincarnations of someone famous make me suspicious. I would have been more able to suspend reality if Ursula’s destiny was a little less ambitious.
Not that I’m rubbishing reincarnation (just the idea that Helen of Troy would reincarnate as Kimberley of Nuneaton). Part of the book’s appeal surely comes from the fact that most of us cling to the idea of life after death. Whilst some religions promise an eternal spiritual after-life, others speak of rebirth, a return to earthly life. Either way, where we end up is determined by how well we do in this life, only reincarnation gives us another go at it. Imagine not being able to retake a driving test.
What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Despite the book’s title, Ursula’s lives are not consecutive, they are not one after another. So are they simultaneous? The idea of parallel lives in parallel worlds is not new. Richard Bach’s One and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are based on the concept that, like embryonic cells, universes divide and co-exit as a result of differing choices and decisions.
But Life After Life is about turning the clock back and trying again. It’s like Groundhog Day: the protagonist are on a kind of karmic mission for their own and the greater good, put there by some unseen higher power (God? Destiny? Aliens? The CIA?). Ursula lives again in order to learn and, with a bit of déjà vu (nice touch, I thought) she learns to stay alive.
I spent much of this one waiting for an explanation. Time travel, perhaps; there are many sci-fi books and films, some of them rather good, built around the need to correct the past. The fact that I never found out what or who was the controlling power didn’t matter in the end. Not only was I intrigued by the concept and gripped by the narrative, but it appealed to that part of me that says: it’s okay that I failed, just start again; it’s okay if I don’t know what I should be doing, I’ll learn from my mistakes. The book doesn’t help me in my quest for the meaning of life – it’s a novel, for Heaven’s sake, not a self-help book. Even so, perhaps it does tell me that, if I accept life with a little more equanimity, more amor fati, my purpose will become clearer. Basically, we all live to learn. (I’m sure I’ve heard that before.)