Wednesday 8 March 2023

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

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11th February, 1910, a baby is born and dies before it’s able to take its first breath.

11th February, 1910, a baby is born and is saved.

This baby will become Ursula Todd, and she will live many lives. Sometimes her death is easy to circumvent in a future version - a reluctance to swim in the sea, a decision to leave a toy that’s been thrown mercilessly through her bedroom window by an unkind sibling. Others, the Spanish flu, the Blitz, prove far more difficult to survive. Ursula lives an extraordinary life, dimly aware of former lives yet only ever in a hazy way, in a feeling, occasionally in a recollection that has never occurred in that version. She is sent to a psychiatrist as a child after pushing the family maid down the stairs in an attempt to stop her going to London and catching the flu. Some of her family find it an affectionate oddity that she lives half in another world, has these odd senses about things, others find it distinctly peculiar and something to be limited. 

The narrative structure can be slightly disorienting to begin with but as you settle into it and the passages between rebirth and death become longer it is quite engrossing. You wonder how she will manage to avoid terrible events, and thankfully some are only present in one version. For a book with so many deaths it is somewhat surprising to discover it is the circumstances of her life that so often tug at the heartstrings. She finds herself the victim of sexual assault, domestic violence, and struggling through the war on meagre rations. Family friends are murdered, siblings killed, and the Blitz is described in the most horrifying and heartbreaking way. Ursula is resilient however, supporting the war effort, going to extremes to help those in need, standing up for herself in difficult circumstances. There is a sense by the end that she is more distinctly aware of what is happening to her, and she considers what she could do to save the global suffering that she is witness to. 

Atkinson cleverly constructs a story that inevitably contains repetition, keeping the reader interested and changing just enough to keep it from becoming boring. The little details she includes to signal that the scene being described is happening simultaneously to one we’ve seen before where she had a very different end are thoughtful. There is one particularly harrowing image from a bombed home during the Blitz that will particularly stay with me. Some of Ursula’s lives are vastly different to others, finding her in other countries, surrounded by an entirely different group of friends or colleagues, but always her family are present, even if only in letter form. 

The dynamics within the Todd family are central to the story. Ursula grows up in a prosperous family with a well-meaning father and a mother acutely aware of appearances. Her sister Pamela is a solid presence in her life, reliable and caring. It is widely accepted that her brother Teddy is everyone’s favourite and there seems to be no jealousy about the matter. Sylvie, her mother, admits that she does not like all of her children. Their Aunt Izzie is a source of frustration and at times embarrassment for Sylvie and Hugh, but she is ultimately there for Ursula in her moments of need, and does not let appearances get in the way of caring for her niece. Sylvie is not as generous. Atkinson also examines the nature of childhood friendships, those that remain throughout the years and those that drift apart with no ill feeling on either side. Relationships and Ursula’s sense of responsibility for those around her are ever present. 

I’m not generally the biggest fan of books set during the World Wars, and hadn’t clocked that this would be before picking it up, but it proved itself to be an addictive read. Atkinson deals with difficult topics with sensitivity and believability. Ursula’s early experiences have an impact on her later life and relationships and she is an interesting protagonist to follow throughout her many lives. There is a lot of familial affection to be found within the pages of this book, as well as a fair deal of suffering. Ultimately, it makes you wonder, what does ‘getting it right’ really mean in life. A wonderful, emotive read with characters that come alive on the page. You’ll find yourself wishing you could see what happens to the other characters after Ursula’s life fades out at times, a testament to the interest they hold.

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