“No point in thinking,” [Ursula] said briskly, “you just have to get on with life.” … “We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”


Some not terribly serious things I thought about during and after reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life:

  • Edward Gorey’s “Gashleycrumb Tinies”.
  • The “Groundhog Day” loop and as a particular instance of such, Ken Grimwood’s beloved/reviled 1987 novel, Replay.
  • How publishing houses really ought to talk to each other more, since North Carolina writer Jill McCorkle’s novel, Life After Life hit the shelves the exact same month.
  • How I was bored by “choose your own adventure” books when I was a kid, and only now realize it was because any narrative tension was ruined by being able to start over. (Or by cheating and reading ahead.)

If you read up on any of those topics on your own you can imagine all manner of facile jokes that I’ll skip, or you could go read any of the many glowing reviews of Atkinson’s novel that have shown up in the few remaining book review sections of the few remaining newspapers. More than a few of those reviewers couldn’t resist comparisons to the same things I thought of, which is unfortunate, because the book deserves better consideration than that.

Some less snarky things that Life After Life had me thinking about by the time I finished it:

  • The resurgent popularity of stories set in Edwardian society and its collapse in the last century’s wars (Downton Abbey, this year’s remake of The Great Gatsby, even Vertigo Comics’ The New Deadwardians, to name a few). Why that period now? What happened then that we fear or desire (or both) could happen now?
  • The restrictions and opportunities facing women — even those of some social and financial means — at that time and place, and how unfortunately, criminally rare it is (at least in my experience) to read a compelling, complex story with an active woman from that period as a central character.
  • Again the idea that all art is somehow about the making of art, and how that narrative mode manifests itself when a novelist intentionally exposes authorial decision making, or chooses a non-linear structure, or takes any kind of “experimental” stance. Donald Barthleme’s 40 Stories, Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas immediately came to mind for me, along with lesser-known novels like Charles Baxter’s First Light.
  • The “Hitler’s Murder Paradox” and why it is such a dangerous trope to include in any story due to its often poor execution.
  • And I kid you not: The influence of video games on contemporary storytelling, in the way that a reader/player discovers the “optimal” narrative after they re-spawn, from Ms. Pac-Man to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. And does the opportunity to start over in a game lead to the same ennui as the choose-your-own-adventure books?

Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum is still, twenty-odd years later, the number-one favorite novel of a friend of mine, and was the last book of Atkinson’s I’d read since the 1990s. That book featured a slightly non-traditional narrator (present at her own conception) and played with non-linear timelines, alternate (though not repeating) lives, family entaglements and reiteration of scenes from different points of view. Life After Life covers these same concerns, though in an earlier historical setting and with (to my recollection) a different attitude towards amor fati (one of the book’s refrains). What is consistent is Atkinson’s masterful command of language and her ability to make a reader react strongly — positively, negatively or in some more complex way — to even the most minor characters and their situations.

The lives after lives in Life After Life belong to Ursula Todd, daughter of an upper-middle class banker and his wife in Edwardian England. Here’s what you need to know about Ursula: She dies. A lot.

  • Shot while assasinating Hitler: twice, maybe
  • Strangled at birth by her own umbilical cord: twice
  • Drowned at the beach: once
  • Slipped or jumped from a roof: twice
  • Killed by the Spanish Flu: four times
  • Suffocated by gas in her sleep: once
  • Murdered by abusive spouse: once
  • Bombed in the Blitz: three times
  • Suicide by Nazi-provided cyanide capsule: once
  • Quietly passed from an apparent stroke: once
  • And at least one time unspecifed, only indicated by her rebirth.

Following each death, Atkinson gives us another revision of Ursula’s life, with some decision reversed or events reordered or just a circumstance changed by random chance, and Ursula moves a little further into life. Ursula never quite becomes aware of her reincarnations, at least not beyond deja vu to varying degrees or intimations that she herself half-considers a fantasy of her own making, and there is not otherwise a shred of metaphysics in the novel meant to explain Ursula’s iterating lives. The repetition of time in the novel is a quite self-aware authorial intervention, though thankfully without explicit authorial intrusion. Through the novel’s structure, Atkinson shows how stories can profoundly change between tellings depending on the whims of the storyteller.

One consequence, or again perhaps deliberate choice, of this authorial experiment is that the other characters seem a bit static in comparison to Ursula. While her circumstances change radically from life to life, the cloud of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and lovers around her almost all stay relatively fixed in their fates. Ursula’s parents remain staid (father) and proper (mother, though of all the characters, her attitude towards Ursula changs the most from revision to revision). Her siblings each play their part — the good sister, the insufferable eldest brother, the adored or ignored younger brothers. The flighty aunt (whose illegitimate child, at least, gets one serious revision), the inconstant secret lover, the doomed neighbors: they become the constant backdrop against which Ursula is moved by the author. It is only Atkinson’s deft portrayals that keep the other characters from being simple props in Ursula’s performances. Their stories are never central to the narrative (save for maybe one doomed brother) but they are fully realized.

And while we’re discussing authorial decisions, let’s talk about the whole Hitler thing. The novel opens with the ending of one of Ursula’s lives in which she attempts to assassinate Hitler before he is named chancellor of Germany. Hitler is not named in the prologue, but the situation, so often portrayed in many media, is quite clearly indicated. The freshman philosophy student’s/sophomore stoner’s canard — “If you could, would you go back in time and kill Hitler?” — looms over the first half of the novel, and the expectation it brings to the story is further frustrated by Ursula’s lives in Germany, in which she sometimes befriends Eva Braun and sometimes is a victim of the war, but only a second time (after the revision in which she comes closest to realizing her looping nature) actually getting close enough to Hitler to shoot again. Ultimately, the plot to undo the 20th century’s great evil is not the point of the novel, and Atkinson does her best to de-emphasize that in the last third of the book, but that authorial choice to open the novel with that particular revision is questionable. Why set the book up that way? Is that the carrot meant to drive the reader through the (repetitive, and a bit grinding) Spanish Flu revisions, and the cycles of unrelenting horror set in the Blitz?

In the author’s notes provided by her publisher, Atkinson says:

We are all intrigued by ‘What if?’ scenarios, and one of the most potent and familiar is ‘What would have happened if Hitler had been prevented from coming to power?’ I’ve long harboured a desire to write something around the topic, worried too, that it would simply turn into a cliché, as the over-familiar usually does.

While I beileve she has managed to avoid the cliché in the novel, she did herself no favors by setting up the expectations of the same. Later in the notes she says, “I think I would say Life After Life is about being English … Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations” and in that I would say she succeeds. Life After Life is both a compelling story and a telling display of authorial process.