Back Bay Books, 560 pages, $18
“Life After Life” can be read as a book about writing (very fashionable) and about how the author, who holds all the cards, can manipulate the characters. To prove the point, Kate Atkinson gives many of the characters a second chance.
So the book starts with Ursula Todd, the protagonist, assassinating Hitler in 1930 in a Munich café with her father’s Great War revolver; the SS draw their pistols and aim them at Ursula. Darkness falls. Soon after, Atkinson reverts to Ursula’s birth in 1910 in the Todd family home, Fox Corner. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. The family doctor, Dr Fellowes, is unable to be present because of a heavy snowfall and baby Ursula dies when no one can find a suitable pair of scissors to cut the cord: “The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.”
But Ursula has another chance, and the story does a volte-face: this time, Dr Fellowes is on hand and he cuts the cord, and all is well. He even gets his customary piccalilli as a reward. This is the pattern of the novel; there are many deaths or near deaths — the cat falls asleep on baby Ursula’s face and suffocates her, but, inventing mouth-to mouth-resuscitation, her mother Sylvie saves her; the dead or near dead are granted another life. So Ursula, in the toddler version, is swept away by a tide in Cornwall, never to be seen again, but later she reappears in the narrative. These near deaths, I think, represent the deep anxieties of family life and what could have happened.
The Todd family is comfortably wealthy and lives just beyond the leafy edge of north London, in a large house called Fox Corner. While the genial Hugh does something in the City, the more waspish Sylvie, his wife, produces children and casts a sardonic eye over the family, but particularly over Hugh’s sister, Isobel, or Izzie, who is the most erratic of the family, and blessed with a wild talent for self-invention. It is she who helps Ursula have an illegal abortion after she is raped by a visiting American. Later, it seems the rape did not happen; the boy kissed Ursula rather vigorously as a goodbye gesture.
Ursula suffers horribly at the hands of two men — one who treats her casually, one who abuses her physically. This relationship with a liar and conman is an awful, violent, episode.
Meanwhile, Teddy, the beloved younger brother, dies, but re-emerges as a Second World War pilot who narrowly escapes death before being held in a German PoW camp for two years. During the war, Ursula works during the day in one of the ministries, and at night she is on fire watch. The description of the Blitz and the devastation it causes is utterly believable: this is Ursula, stunned (or killed?) by the shockwave of a bomb: “Her name was Susie, apparently. She had no idea, she really couldn’t remember anything. A man kept calling her out of the darkness, ‘Come on Susie, don’t go to sleep now,’ and ‘How about we have a nice cuppa when we get out of here, eh, Susie?’ She was choking on ash or dust. She sensed something inside her was torn beyond repair.”
This is a wonderful book, but I found myself asking certain questions: did Ursula remember all the versions of her own story, and did she regret not shooting Hitler when she had the chance? I understood, of course, that Atkinson is making various points about human life — that they hang by a thread and that our identities are not necessarily fixed (and could easily have been other); that our destiny is uncertain; that writers control their characters and can produce many versions of them — but this isn’t sufficiently compelling to intrude into a truly great family saga. The virtuoso creation of home-counties domesticity and the wide-ranging sensitivity of Atkinson’s mind — ever alert to voice, to changing times, to the faltering class system, to the horrors of war, to changing styles of dress, and to housekeeping and much more, the literary allusions — really don’t require the tricksy bits.
Maybe Atkinson was wary of writing something that might be recognisably a family novel — too ordinary. If that was the case, she had no need to worry. There is no question that Atkinson is a superb writer and this Costa prize-winner is remarkable — joyful, moving, perceptive and quietly funny.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd