This book had been on the edges of my radar for a while – I’d read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie crime adventure Started Early, Took My Dog but couldn’t get through it. However, I was aware that this book was different and when one of my students brought it in with the words, “I’ve just read this and I’d love to know what you think about it…” I was more than willing to give it a go. After all, Costa Award winners should at least be given a chance.
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
So this is a book where the main protagonist loops back to the start of her life again, each time she dies. And she dies a lot – particularly at the start of the book. But what held me was the quality of the writing – Atkinson’s depiction of the family on the surface was very straightforward, but through Ursula’s various reincarnations we get to see other family members in all sorts of situations and how their relationships shift according to the way events fall. Some of the disasters don’t just befall Ursula – I was very struck at Nancy’s fate. A neighbour’s child and close friend to younger brother Teddy becomes a murder victim, after being sexually assaulted. During the lifetimes when this event occurs, the grief-stricken family turn in on itself, so that Ursula loses the friendship of Millie, Nancy’s older sister, who otherwise plays a key role in her other lives.
I’m conscious it sounds a thoroughly grim read – and indeed, parts of the book are exactly that. Ursula’s miserable existence with her violent, controlling husband and her experiences during the Blitz are visceral. But the book is also shot through with shafts of humour, joy and tenderness. Atkinson understands the only thing that makes big disasters in life bearable are the smaller details that make up our every day – laughter and kindness between friends and family, the beauty of nature, sharing good food and drink…
Fox Corner, the family home, becomes the emotional hub of the book. All Ursula’s earlier mishaps occur here, and others involving family members, friends or servants also happen here. But in a book where the storyline is continually shifting with often horrible and abrupt endings, only to restart all over again, Fox Corner comes to represent stability, even though it is the site where some of the worst disasters befall Ursula. There are passages of lyrical beauty about the countryside surrounding the house and there is also a sense of community and servants devoting themselves to the Family – although that doesn’t stop rapists and child murderers also popping up to wreak havoc as with characteristic deftness, Atkinson suddenly turns everything on its head.
This relooping narrative isn’t new – think of Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day. Author Christopher Priest finds this an engrossing theme – see my review of The Separation. Atkinson’s treatment is more successful than Priest’s The Separation in that Ursula makes a more appealing protagonist then his twins – and he throws his readers into a morass of conflicting storylines and leaves them to sort it out, without the helpful chapter headings and dates in Life After Life. But the similarity ends with the structural device – Atkinson is far more interested in the fragility of life and how apparently inconsequential decisions are often nothing of the sort, whereas Priest is concerned about the role of the unreliable narrator and how it impacts upon the narrative.
There is an anomaly that bothers me – while Ursula’s life reloops to the extent that she becomes half aware of some of the dangers lurking and experiences powerful feelings of déjà vu. So is Ursula alone in experiencing these different versions? Well, no – otherwise the people around her would have remained unchanged. And they don’t. Teddy, her brother, is the only one who also seems equally determined to change circumstances around his life – so is Atkinson saying there are only a handful of people who are aware of this? Given the complexity and number of lives Ursula experiences, I would have liked a bit more about Atkinson’s take on nature of this constant retread, other than the slightly jokey references in Dr Kellet’s office and the occasional brief discussions between Ursula’s close friends and trusted family members.
But this niggle fades into the background against the breadth, unpredictability and sheer exuberance of Atkinson’s writing. A memorable, thought-provoking read.