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Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Cover to Life after Life

I love a book with an inventive narrative structure and, like Scheherazade, Kate Atkinson has 1,001 plots in her novel, Life after Life. Ursula Todd, born on a snowy night in 1910 to banker Hugh Todd and his aristocratic wife Sylvie dies and lives--over and over again.  But this is a novel not just about reincarnation but also about how a writer writes and makes choices. The chapters reveal the choices a writer--or a human being--makes and how it changes the path a life takes.

In one iteration, Ursula does not take one breath. In other versions of the chapters called “Snow” she survives her birth but dies young by being suffocated by a cat, by drowning, or by falling off a roof. Kate Atkinson captures the fragility of life with tragedy just around the corner, but she also shows Ursula growing up, surrounded by her loving family in other versions of her many and often tragic lives.

Atkinson’s careful character delineation makes sure Ursula is always herself in every plot permutation. With the stiff upper lip of British fortitude, Ursula marches on. The chilling chapters covering the London Blitz during World War II show Ursula working by day as a secretary for the War Office and by night as a warden, helping survivors as bombs make what is left of London’s streets into “mounds.”.  

In some versions, she takes part in history and knows Hitler. In several lives, she has inklings of her other lives and tries to change her path to save her beloved brother Teddy from the war or their loyal maid Bridget from death from influenza.

Could it be that Ursula learns and grows in her multitude of lives, or is her life the symbol of reincarnation of the snake eating its own tail? In one plot line, Ursula has a mentor in the form of Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist trained in Vienna (“Where else?” he asks.)  Dr. Kellet tries to explain to ten-year-old Ursula the philosophical concepts of déjà vu, reincarnation, and Nietzsche’s amor fati (Love of Fate). “A more fatty?” Young Ursula is puzzled since both the Doctor and she were thin. Ursula focuses on what is important, not the philosophy, as she asks about a photograph of Dr. Kellet’s son, Guy, lost at the battle of Arras. Ursula, an old soul, accepts what happens, loves and keeps on going.

The author plays havoc with narrative tradition in her inventive structure. Who wants the main character to die after the reader has a vested interest in her tale? But it works. Though Ursula is raped, murdered, crushed by bombs, commits suicide, and dies of old age, Atkinson makes you care about the next reset in her life. In this book, the curtain drops and the story ends time after time, but Life after Life has many more stories to tell.