The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.
“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”
Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.
I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.
The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.
So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.
The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.
If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.
All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.
In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.
When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”***Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.***
Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”
You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?
A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.
At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.
For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.