Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
529 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.99.
I have long been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s intelligent and quirky writing, but when I read the premise of her latest novel, Life After Life, my enthusiasm began to dim. Would it be possible to maintain interest in a plot where the main character repeatedly dies and is reborn? It sounded suspiciously like those Choose Your Own Adventure books my kids read in grade school.
But Kate Atkinson has never let me down, so I started in. My trust was not misplaced. I was in good hands.
Ursula Todd is born at home in the British countryside, weeks early, during a blizzard in 1910. She dies within minutes. Ursula Todd is born, once more, at home during a blizzard in 1910. This time she lives: “‘Yes, Mrs. Todd, a bonny, bouncing baby girl.’ Sylvie thought Dr. Fellowes might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.”
Throughout her childhood Ursula dies over and over again—from the Spanish flu, from drowning, from falling off a roof. As an adult she is murdered, commits suicide, and dies several times in some particularly harrowing scenes during the blitz in London. Each passage is rewritten: Ursula lives because different choices are made, the timing changes, or because a long-gone character reappears–and the plot quickly veers off in a different, though plausible, direction. After each death and rebirth, Ursula moves on to a later stage in life.
You don’t get as dizzy reading it as you think you might. Nor, surprisingly, do you think, “Oh, here we go again.” Because of Atkinson’s skillful writing, I remained absorbed, curious as to what would happen next. After all, don’t we all wonder “What if?” And don’t we all hope to get it right in life? I found myself rooting unrelentingly for Ursula.
In an NPR interview, Atkinson says that although Ursula changes throughout the book, she remains herself–only stronger and more courageous. Maybe that’s what “getting it right” is. I know it’s something I would settle for even with only one allotted birth and death.