What if you could do over the worst mistake of your life? What if you got to do that over and over? What if time is not linear, not even circular, but a slate to be erased and reused endlessly or until it’s gotten right? In her latest novel, Life after Life, Kate Atkinson explores this idea.
On a snowy night, Ursula Todd is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She dies as a hapless maid pronounces that nothing can be done. On a snowy night Ursula is born and Dr. Fellowes has made it through the snow in time to cut the cord. On another snowy night, her mother cuts the cord herself. As Ursula experiences life after life, one summer her sister drowns; one summer it’s her cousin. She pushes the family maid down the stairs and breaks her leg, or she lies to her and tells her that her beau is cheating on her, or the maid dies of influenza along with Ursula’s sister and brother. She slaps the face of a potential rapist or doesn’t and dies at the hand of an abusive husband. She spends the war as an air raid warden in London and survives the war. Her beloved brother Teddy’s plane is shot down and he dies. Teddy is taken prisoner and survives. Ursula dies in bombed out apartment in Germany holding her daughter. As war is dawning, triumphant, Ursula kills Hitler in a German bar and dies in a barrage of bullets.
As the many lives of Ursula unfold we get to know her character as it is shaped and reshaped. The supporting cast is complex and the reader gets to know them over lifetimes. Atkinson raises the question of what characteristics are fixed in a person and how much can circumstances alter that core personality. Some of the differences between lives are subtle and some extreme. Pivotal points are large and small. She invites us to look at our own lives and consider their pivotal points and occasions of deja vu. Atkinson writes like a dream. She has given us another masterful work that is highly original and provocative. It’s a book that spoils you for anything else for a while. I would very much like to experience reading it for the first time again.