A good friend had been recommending Kate Atkinson’s work for ages, so I decided to give her new novel a try. Life After Life (Bond Street Books) tells the life stories of Ursula Todd, born at home in England—the first of many such arrivals—on a cold and snowy night in February of 1910. Within a few pages, though, she has succumbed—the first of many such untimely conclusions—with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and the doctor delayed by snow. But Ursula is not done yet, not by a long shot. In the next chapter she is born again: a cold and snowy night in February 1910, etc. This time, though, the doctor arrives in time, and Ursula survives. Until she drowns, age five, on a visit to the seaside.
Hers is a life beset by all manner of hazards, many of which prove fatal; yet Ursula manages to lead a variety of divergent lives, all stemming from the same beginning. She falls victim to the 1918 flu pandemic not once, not twice, but a grand total of four times; sometimes life’s like that. In 1933 (during an “adventurous year in Europe”) she is befriended by Eva Braun, an acquaintanceship which leads (in one variant) to Ursula making an attempt on Hitler’s life.
You think of Italo Calvino’s marvellous If on a winter’s night a traveler; you even think of Edward Gorey, whose Gashlycrumb Tinies records the many macabre and banal ways in which life can end. But you also think about the vagaries of fate, and how minor events can have major repercussions. And you think about the teeming possibilities that can still be found in fiction, by a writer working at her peak.
Life After Life is a wonderful book: literate, confident and constantly surprising.