Saturday, August 6, 2016

Kate Atkinson, "Life After Life"

You only live once, they say. But Ursula Todd, the heroine of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life (2013) lives again and again, experiencing about two dozen different lives that one English woman born in 1910 might have lived. In one of those lives, it is hinted on the first page, she may have assassinated Hitler in 1930.

In the rest Ursula lives the various permutations of a woman of her class and time. This sounds hokey, and at times it did remind me of Groundhog Day, but actually it worked rather well. Instead of seeing the characters in 200 different incidents, we see them in a dozen slightly different versions of the same twenty or so incidents, exploring various ways they might have responded. To take just one example, we see the family devastated by the death of their favorite younger son in a bomber over Germany, or their happy togetherness should he survive. Rather than everything depending on how certain chances turn out – will influenza strike the family in 1918? will Ursula die in the Blitz, flee into the country, or stay in London and survive? – we see several different rolls of the dice, and the outcome of each.

My main complaint is that some stretches are boring. We have here yet another upper middle English family of the old school, with an Irish maid and a grouchy cook, doing fairly commonplace things. I've read those scenes too many times. For me the book is better when it is weirder, especially the lives that take Ursula to Germany. I thought Atkinson's portrayal of domestic life among the Nazi elite was the book's high point. I also enjoyed the scenes set during the Blitz, and the appearances of a wandering killer.

If exploring the many different lives one woman might have lived between 1910 and the 1960s sounds interesting to you, by all means pick up Life after Life. The writing is fine and the elaborate scheme works much better than we have any right to expect.

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