If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Because let’s face it: failing is no great shakes. In life, we all make mistakes. If we’re lucky, we learn from them as well. Perhaps they even help to make us who we are.
But say the failure state of whatever endeavour was more meaningful than a slight setback. What if you were to die trying?
That’s what happens to poor Ursula Todd at the end of almost every section of Kate Atkinson’s astonishing new novel Life After Life: she expires. But there’s something even weirder going on here, because after the end... the beginning again—and again and again—of life after life.
What, then, if you could travel back in time to give life another go... and another, and another, until you got it just so? Would you be the same person, if you made fundamentally different decisions? (Ursula isn’t.)
Would the history books be written in much the same way, or would they, too, be changed? (Depends on the decision.)
And if you were just going to die again anyway, and start the cycle anew, what difference, if any, might it make? (All the difference, I dare say. Every last blasted whit of it.)
Now I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing myself before beginning Life After Life. But whatever you do, don’t mistake this beautiful book for some sort of bleak wartime take on Groundhog Day. The premise bears a certain resemblance, yet in terms of structure, setting, tone and intent, Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel is so very far from the tragic farce of that comedy classic that they feel worlds apart.
Life After Life begins with... well, what else but a double helping of death? In the prologue, which takes place in November 1930, Ursula walks into a cafe and finishes the Führer with her father’s former service revolver, putting paid to that oft-pondered moral quandary... though the author reiterates it a little later:
“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”
“Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?” Ralph asked mildly.
“Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.”
“But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.”
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought.
Beyond this brutal demonstration, Atkinson takes us back. Back to the very beginning of Ursula’s existence, in fact: to her birth on the night of February 11th, 1910, which we return to repeatedly. Back, indeed, to her first death, because she’s stillborn, initially; strangled by the umbilical cord connecting Ursula to her mother—a connection that is severed in every subsequent section of this harrowing narrative—simply because the doctor got stuck in the snow.
“The snow the day she was born was a legend in the family. She had heard the story so often that she thought she could remember it.” And perhaps she can; though Ursula is still far from cognisant of the situation she’s stuck in, she has lived many, many lives by the time she thinks this.
But in living life after life, inevitably, Ursula has had to die death after death. As is literally the case later, “death and decay were on her skin, in her hair, in her nostrils, her lungs, beneath her fingernails, all the time. They had become part of her.”
She has, for example, drowned off the coast of Cornwall, only to be saved in a later take courtesy of the kindness of a passing stranger. She has fallen headlong from the roof of her family home and split her skull on the stones below, only to abandon the dear doll she had chased into thin air the next time this icy night rolls around. A particularly virulent strain of influenza proves more difficult to outmanoeuvre. This kills Ursula in chapter after chapter, until the phrase Atkinson tends to end these brief sequences with has become a disarming parody: we go from “darkness fell” to “darkness soon fell again” to “darkness, and so on,” all in the space of twenty unbearably painful pages.
Thankfully, Ursula’s ignorance diminishes—as does her innocence—in the later stages of Life After Life. She begins to have inexplicable premonitions. A strong sense of déjà vu often overpowers her:
“It had been nothing, just something fluttering and tugging at a memory. A silly thing—it always was—a kipper on a pantry shelf, a room with green linoleum, an old-fashioned hoop bowling silently along. Vaporous moments, impossible to hold on to.”
But hold on to them Ursula must, somehow, if the cycle is ever to cease repeating.
Life After Life is an elaboration of the serenity prayer, essentially, in which Ursula finds the courage to change the things she can, and the grace to accept those things she can’t. As torturous a process as this is for her, it’s utterly wonderful for us. Let’s waste no time wondering what if—what if, for instance, I could reach into the fiction and fix it, after a fashion—because at the end of the day, I would change nothing about this haunting novel. It’s exemplary in every which way.
It is structurally superb, and perfectly paced, as the isolated snapshots we see at the outset cohere into a series of living, breathing pictures—portraits of a family in the good times and the bad, the happy times and the sad—before dissolving again at the end.
And that family figures in to Life After Life in a major way. We’ve hardly touched on them here—there’s just so much else to discuss—but Teddy, Izzie, Hugh, Sylvie... even the monstrous Maurice: every one of Ursula’s relatives feels fully formed, and though this is first and foremost a family saga—along the lines of several of the author’s earlier efforts—her friends as well are redolently realised. Be they central or supporting, Atkinson’s characters are among the most memorable and affecting I’ve encountered in all my years of reading.
The narrative, though harder to get a handle on, is equally appealing. It takes us, broadly chronologically, through some of the most significant events of the 20th century—from the Great War through the protracted Armistice afterwards to the blackout and beyond—but Life After Life does not overstay its welcome in any one period, though each is so expertly and eloquently rendered I’d have happily seen every era extended.
Additionally, Atkinson has occasion to explore the small scale as well as the great: one of the novel’s most affecting sections takes place primarily in 1926, and it chronicles nothing so earth-shaking as an affair... albeit an agonising one. Yet the author finds warmth in even the coldest spots. Honesty and generosity enough to carry readers to the book’s bittersweet conclusion, which wrought tears from me. Not just because I was glad, or sad—I’ll never tell which it was—but because this phenomenal novel was almost over.
At the end of the day, Kate Atkinson’s latest is her very greatest by a way, reminiscent of nothing so much as her Whitbread Award-winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Likewise, Life After Life is a first for the esteemed author, marking her first flirtation with speculative elements. I can only hope Atkinson returns to our genre someday soon, because her inaugural attempt at bringing the fantastic into the field of literary fiction is clearly one of the best books of the year.
Life After Life will be available in the UK from Transworld Books on March 14, and in the US from Reagan Arthur Books on April 2 .
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too!