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Book review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

The central character here is Ursula, whom we first meet as a baby in 1910, as she is being born with the cord round her neck. The doctor cannot get to the house because of heavy snow and Ursula's mother can't find the scissors to cut the cord, so the baby dies. Immediately after this we get the same scene again but this time the doctor does arrive in time and Ursula survives.

This duplication sets the pattern for the book. We follow Ursula as she suffers crises of various kinds, many of them fatal, as do other characters. A major theme is that of the London blitz in the second world war, during which Ursula is killed twice. The war also appears in another of Ursula's lives, in which she marries a German and is trapped in Germany after war breaks out. She becomes a friend of Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, and stays for a time with her at the Berghof, Hitler's alpine retreat. In yet another scenario she prevents the war by shooting Hitler; in fact, this is the opening scene in the book although it is repeated just before the end.

Ursula's multiple lives are, of course, what the title alludes to, although it is perhaps rather misleading. The lives are not consecutive, as in Ken Grimwood's Replay, but rather concurrent or nearly so. Unlike Grimwood's protagonist, Ursula is never fully aware of her situation although she does have inklings of it in the form of occasional flashes of a strange mental state which her mother describes as déjà vu. This results in Ursula, at the age of ten, being dispatched to a Jungian-sounding psychiatrist who at least partly intuits what is happening, although he talks in terms of reincarnation.

The risk with these repeated multiple time shifts is that they can confuse the reader, who has to remember which time frame is operating at the moment. Each section has a heading, for example 'September 1940', but some of the sections are quite long and it would have been useful to have the time reference at the head of the page as a reminder, but the Kindle version, at least, lacks this.

In fact, I had the impression that the multiple lives theme is as much a literary device allowing Atkinson to see bow different narrative possibilities affect the same character as it is a means to metaphysical exploration of the nature of time and the possibility of free will. Being myself attracted to ideas of this kind I would have welcomed a slightly more explicit treatment of them. It's here, I think, that Grimwood is more satisfying. But perhaps the comparison is unfair; the two writers are not aiming at exactly the same target.

In any case, quite apart from the time-shift element, this is a remarkably rich and satisfying novel on many levels, especially in its account of life (and death) in the blitz. Much of this is, obviously, horrific, and Atkinson doesn't pull her punches here, but events are refracted through Ursula's constant sense of irony, which doesn't desert her even as she is dying; and this helps to make bearable what would otherwise be difficujlt to read.

02-01-2019
%T Life After Life
%A Atkinson, Kate
%I Transworld Publishers
%C London
%D 2013, 2015
%G Epub ISBN 9781409043799
%P 530pp
%K fiction
%O author note on Life After Life
%O kindle version downloaded from Amazon, 2018

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