It is December 1, and Advent has begun. I’ve decided to recommend a book each day until Christmas – a book to which I have given at least 4 Stars and for which I have not yet posted a review on my blog. To make it more interesting/challenging, I will try going through the alphabet (using author’s surnames), skipping "Q" and "X".
Day One: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
This is the story of Ursula Todd born or stillborn on February 11, 1910. If she reaches adulthood, she remains single or is a mistress or marries and does or doesn’t have a child. Her life ends at a certain point but then another narrative begins again and again and again, each time her life taking a different course, sometimes only marginally changed and sometimes radically so.
Suspension of disbelief is required. The reader must accept the premise that a person has chance after chance to rewrite his/her destiny: “’What if we had a chance to do it again and again . . . until we finally did get it right?’” When Ursula is reborn, she comes with a very vague sense of her previous existence: “The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past?” Sometimes she experiences “an anticipatory dread of something unknown but enormously threatening.” As a result, she often takes actions which prevent the negative outcome of a previous life path, although that subsequent scenario does not necessarily guarantee a happy ending.
The book examines different views of reality and time and how people should approach life. Ursula wonders, “Would she really be able to come back and start again? Or was it . . . all in her head? And so what if it was – wasn’t everything in her head real too? What if there was no demonstrable reality? What if there was nothing beyond the mind?” Is amor fati the best philosophy to adopt? (“’It means acceptance. Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced’” because “Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”) Is time linear or circular? (“’Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.’”)
The replaying of episodes could be tedious but Atkinson avoids that pitfall. Each repetition builds our knowledge of characters so each emerges fully realized. And Ursula does progress; she gradually develops more self-confidence and becomes more proactive in taking charge of her life.
The British experience of World War II is a central focus. Ursula finds herself in the middle of the Blitz and some of the descriptions of the effects of the bombings are gruesome and disturbing. A body that Ursula helps to move comes apart “like a Christmas cracker.” After a bombing, Ursula’s attention is drawn to a dress; slowly it dawns on her that something is wrong: “A dress didn’t have arms in it. Not sleeves, but arms. With hands.” Interestingly, in no version of her life does Ursula escape the horror of that time.
I appreciated the erudite style of the novel. There are numerous quotations from poets like Keats and Donne. Snippets of French and German make an appearance, and there are references to art and architecture as well.
The presentation of alternative lives may initially seem gimmicky, but it is a device effectively employed. The result is a thoroughly entertaining book that seriously examines life and the implications of choices.
And if you like this book, you might want to read A God in Ruins, Atkinson’s latest novel which tells the story of Ursula Todd's beloved younger brother Teddy as he navigates the perils and progress of the 20th century.