It is November 1930. A woman, possibly a German woman but certainly a woman in Germany, shoots a man, ‘not a manly man’, dead as he sits at a table laden with cake. ‘Fuhrer,’ she says. ‘Fur sie.’ It is 11 February 1910: a baby dies as it is born, with a cord wrapped about its neck, the doctor unable to attend, blocked by snow. It is 11 February 1920: a baby lives thanks to the skilful intervention of a rather grumpy doctor. June 1914: a child is swept away to sea. June 1914: a kindly watercolourist saves a young girl from drowning. January 1915: a young girl’s naughty brother throws her favourite dolly out the window and a young girl follows to her doom. January 1915: a young girl’s older sister intervenes with a contraption rigged from a lacrosse stick and a walking cane. In subsequent years, the young girl would plan ahead and keep her dolls hidden when the time rolled around.
As you may be able to summise from the above, Kate Atkinson’s latest revolves around a literary device, itself purloined from a Nietzsche quote used as an epigraph in which the horse loving philosopher wonders what it would be like to live your life over and over again until (as a rival quote from Edward Beresford Todd adds) you got it right. Life after Life concerns a young girl called Ursula who comes to suspect, much to the chagrin of her dour mother Sylvie, she has unnatural powers, life offering her more than its fair share of deja vu. At various moments, a painful thrill of horror rushes upon Ursula and she is compelled to act: and so a housemaid who goes to London at the end of the war and contracts Spanish flu that levels the household is pushed from a doorstep, a flight of stairs and eventually rendered fiancé-less in order to divert death from the household’s door; an anonymous backroad serial killer gains and loses a victim; there is a version of her life in which she is raped and a version in which she is not; a marriage goes sour and then doesn’t happen at all; a second world war is spent in London and in Germany and once again in London; all of life’s roads, both the well travelled and the lesser, are travelled.
It’s a literary Groundhog Day, then, with a smattering of Sarah Water’s Night Watch thrown in for good measure. At the beginning, in amidst the rush of short chapters, the action feels somewhat diffuse and it’s hard (or at least it was hard for this reader) to find something to grab onto as a seeming horde of characters rushed by. You start reading, thanks to the above mentioned quotes and a short haiku of plot summation on the rear of the book (What if you had the chance to live / your life again and again, until / you finally got it right?) in full knowledge of the literary device and for a time Life after Life feels all device. Yes, you read and think, very good but don’t you have anything else up your sleeve other than a slightly fantastical Downton Abbey? Truth be told, Life after Life takes time to settle. It took a short throwaway line to really impress me (each time Ursula dies, darkness descends, sometimes as darkness and sometimes as a bat – there is a line ‘Darkness, and so on’ about 119 pages in that stopped me in my tracks and had me smiling at Atkinson’s playfulness. Okay, I thought. But what else do you have up your sleeve?).
The middle three hundred pages of the novel see Ursula married to a couple of different men (both of whom are wretched in their own different ways), befriending Eva Braun and gradually moving into Hitler’s surprisingly dull circle of blowhards, working in London as part of a small crew of volunteers helping during the Blitz, and variously murdered, gassed, blown up, crushed by a falling wall and dying of old age in the middle of a park. Atkinson treads a difficult line tremendously well managing a novel that is both playful and serious, clever and compelling. Of course, the literary device being what it is, the novel gradually becomes as diffuse as the opening (because it would be crass, wouldn’t it, for Ursula to learn a lesson, or use her powers, ultimately, for good – although in one version of events she does do that) and there is a sense in which she has her cake and eats it (witnessing something – we’ll call it event B – that could only have happened if event A – in which she died – occurred). But again, this feels as it should be, a nod to the serious and/both modernist novels of a century ago.
All told, then, a satisfying, intelligent read that sees Atkinson possibly stepping away from the crime novels she has been making her own in recent years back towards the more erudite fare of yore (back when Behind the Scenes at the Museum seemed to indicate Atkinson would be a Mantel).
Any Cop?: A big thumb’s up from us.