Life After Life is one of the most recent novels from one of Britain’s finest contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson. Here, Atkinson has used ‘the most turbulent events of the 20th century’ as her backdrop, and has proffered the question: ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ Interesting foundations abound, and the story which she has crafted certainly builds upon this creativity.
The beginning of the book takes November 1930 as its setting, but that is by no means the beginning of the story. The structure is such that it flits between one time period and the next, bobbing into the past and hurtling into the future from one chapter to another. In the first vignette, Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, finds herself in a café with Adolf Hitler: ‘He loved his cakes’, our omniscient narrator muses. ‘No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view’. Armed with an old pistol, Ursula shoots him. Here the vignette ends.
The second sketch takes us back to rather a domestic scene in February 1910, where a baby girl, our very own Ursula Todd, is born blue, ‘strangled’ by her umbilical cord, ‘the poor wee thing’. In the third vignette which follows, the very same baby is ‘bonny’ and ‘bouncing’, and full of life. Ursula is the third daughter of a young married couple, Hugh and Sylvie Todd, who already have two children. When meeting his baby sister for the first time, the eldest son, Maurice, ‘gloomily’ utters ‘Another girl’, showing the start of his childish distaste for everything around him. The story whirls through Ursula’s childhood, allowing us to see the best and worst consequences of the First and Second World Wars, and the impact which such events had on one family, the endearing and wholly likeable Todds.
A rather playful structure has been used throughout Life After Life. There are eleven sections entitled ‘Snow’, five called ‘Armistice’, and three which fall under the optimistic heading of ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow’. The novel is set on rather a repetitive cycle, wherein the same days and events are played over and over again. Somehow, rather than making this monotonous, such repetitions never seem stolid or overly similar. The author brings new details to light in each chapter, building up her characters all the while. Others are introduced merely in order to avert crises – a fellow painting on the beach who heroically wades into the Cornwall sea to rescue Ursula and her elder sister Pamela when they are washed out of their depth whilst on holiday, for example. Strands of the story are woven through each section and are picked up like dropped stitches every once in a while.
Throughout Life After Life, Atkinson’s wit shines. When Sylvie Todd is musing about the death of her father, the following statement is uttered by the third person narrator: ‘He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously’. When talking about her neighbours, too, Sylvie’s naivety is rather touching in the most amusing way: ‘“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice as she would use for “Catholic” – intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism’.
Life After Life is an historical novel of the most contemporary kind, and its rather unique structure has clearly been deftly plotted. The entire novel is crammed with the wit, humour and compassion for her characters which is evident in every single one of her books to date. Atkinson captures each period which she writes about wonderfully, and she also weaves in the seemingly distant pasts of Hugh and Sylvie. Life After Life is certainly a strong and absorbing novel, and it is one which will surely not disappoint even the most reluctant reader of historical fiction.