” History is all about what ifs. ” (553)
Life After Life depicts a woman who appears in contradictory versions of similar events in early 20th century. The book takes a bit getting used to as the story shifts back and forth in time and major events begin and end, then begin again, taking different trajectories. The heroine, Ursula Beresford Todd, keeps dying, then dying again, under drastically different circumstances by way of choices. Life After Life begins and ends with the “snow” chapter, completing the circle. She dies when she’s being born on a snowy night in February 1910.
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell. (24)
As a child, she drowns. She falls off the roof. She contracts influenza. Each turn of her story is subject to revision. As “darkness fell,” she exits from the world of living and is resurrected in another. As Atkinson concocts the different lives of Ursula, defying logic, chronology, and even history, reader is ushered into a slightly vertiginous realm of untethered imagination. The book, in other word, is one of possibilities defying time. A great deal of history transpires in the intervals separating her sudden and frequent violent exits from the world of the living. The novel begins with a scene in which she assassinates Hitler in 1930, entertaining the thought that none of the horrifying violence would have taken place if Hilter was dead.
As a teenager living in British countryside, she is raped and becomes pregnant, but in another version the encounter with the American attacker is no more than a stolen kiss. Later in life, a bullying marriage is endured is first endured, then in a different incarnation she becomes the warden of Air Raid Precautions and remains single. Later, she commits suicide and is murdered. She is killed during the German bombing of London in World War II and ends her life in the ruins of Berlin in 1945. The relatively still axes around which the whirling machine turns are Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, and her aunt, Izzie. Sylvie remains caustic and snobbish. She embraces the truth of her son’s death by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. Izzie remains convivial and free-spirited throughout, remaining the provider of shelter and provisions.
The narrative multiverse in Life After Life can be far-reaching at times, but ultimately it converges to the juncture in which one has to accept life and not regarding it as good or bad. It’s almost reminiscent of the Buddhist teaching of karma. The different versions of Ursula’s life does compete for reader’s attention and keep a conventionally single-note story out of reach. The conclusion is satisfactory as Atkinson connects all the loose ends with facile but welcome clarity. She is making various points about human life: that we all hang by a thread and that our identities are not necessarily fixed, and above all, destiny is most uncertain.
622 pp. Black Swan UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]