Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, is a remarkable achievement. It’s several hundred pages of exquisitely controlled prose contain the story of Ursula Todd, who is in the course of the story, born again and again and again. Each life, some so very brief, ends in a tragic death, accidental, malevolent, heroic, painful, and each time she starts over, comes to the point where that mistake was but is now sidestepped, turned away, avoided. She lives multiple times, each one different, and yet she remains herself.
The novel opens with a shocking scene—Ursula, a young woman living in Berlin, enters a café wherein she finds Adolf Hitler, surrounded by sycophants, enjoying his celebrity. She pulls a pistol and takes aim,
Then she is born.
It is 1910, in the English countryside, and snowing heavily. The scene is reminiscent of Dickens. She is born. First she dies from strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped around her with no one around who knows what to do. Then in the next life that obstacle is overcome. And so it goes, as she ages, staggers through one life after another, growing a little older each time, her family battered by one damn thing after another. Ursula herself, a middle child, watches as much as participates in the homely evolution of this middle class English family, and we are treated to an almost microscopic study of its composition—its hypocrisies, its crises, it successes, its failures.
Ursula endures. As her name almost punningly suggests, she Bears Death, over and over. She never quite remembers, though. She has intense feelings of déjà vu, she knows such and such should be avoided, this and that must be manipulated, but she never quite knows why. At times she comes perilously close to recognition, but like so much in life her actions are more ideas that seemed good at the time than any deeper understanding.
Unlike the rigor of traditional time travel, the past does change, but then this is not a time travel novel, at least not in any traditional sense. You might almost say it’s a reincarnation story, but it’s not that, either, because Ursula never comes back as anyone other than herself. At one point in the novel, time is described, not as circular but as a palimpsest—layers, one atop another, compiling. The result here is a portrait more complete than most not of a life lived but of life as potential. But for this or that, there wandered the future. It is a portrait of possibility.
The big events of history are not changed, though. Nothing Ursula does in her manifold existences alters the inevitability of WWII or Hitler or the Spanish Flu or any of the mammoth occurrences that dominate each and every life she experiences.
What she does change is herself. And, by extension, her family, although all of them remain persistently themselves throughout. It is only the consequences of their self expression that become shaped and altered.
We see who are the genuine heroes, who the fools, the cowards, the victims and victors as, where in one life none of this might emerge clearly, in the repeated dramas with minor changes character comes inexorably to the fore.
Atkinson does not explain how any of this happens. It’s not important, because she isn’t doing the kind of fiction we might encounter as straight up science fiction, where the machinery matters. She’s examining ramifications of the personal in a world that is in constant flux on the day to day level even as the accumulation of all that movement builds a kind of monolithic structure against which our only real choice is to choose what to do today. Consequently, we have one of the most successful co-options of a science fiction-like conceit into a literary project of recent memory.
On a perhaps obvious level, isn’t this exactly what writers do? Reimagine the personal histories of their characters in order to show up possibility?