Kate Atkinson’s remarkable, and vastly enjoyable, new novel requires a reader on ball bearings—someone capable of turning with every plot variation and yet able to stay balanced through the incredible twists that must occur when a fictional character takes a dozen or so chances to get life right.
We have all read books about going back in time, but in Life After Life, time finally catches up with Ursula, the English schoolgirl who relives her life over and over, both in England and in Nazi Germany, mostly during the Second World War. Each variation may constitute her best shot yet (or not), no matter how many times she has to repeat it. And every time you think, by golly, she’s got it—the author knows better.
Plot summation here is difficult, because it changes at the drop of a bomb. (And incidentally, the descriptions of the London Blitz are the best—the most realistic—that this reader has ever read, bringing home the horrifying details of death out of the sky as nothing else in fiction has before.) One might think that Atkinson’s technique of ending Ursula’s story and then starting it over would be too confusing or tedious to stay with very long, but no such thing happens. The cast of characters varies slightly from existence to existence, and the alternate histories with a multitude of endings cast their own spell. Still, it helps that most characters stay dependably the same; there are slight variations in individual personalities, but the main individuals stay fairly faithful to their past and future personas. It’s the events that vary.
Edinburgh author Atkinson has won Britain’s Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and has published a collection of short stories and seven previous novels, four of them starring Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned private investigator. She deals with harder questions here (“what if there was no demonstrable reality?”) and arrives at few general answers—but the process and the plotline are gripping.
You might think that humor wouldn’t fit in such a scenario, but Atkinson’s very dry, very British wit adds to the story without interfering with its serious trajectory. Darkness so often descends—but life goes on. Which may or may not be comforting, but surely forms the premise of an absorbing novel you will want to finish before the next darkness descends.