[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
What is it that drives us to pick up and complete a novel? A plot that carefully mortars brick upon brick, each clicking neatly together giving us no choice but to wonder “but then what?” until we look up surprised to find ourselves at the end? A character so intriguing we feel compelled to follow along wherever their thoughts and actions lead us? The range and depth of emotions that buffet us as we’re swept along? Any one or two or all of these?
What in the world, then, is Kate Atkinson thinking in her newest work, Life After Life? In giving us Ursula Todd, who struts not just one life on the stage but dozens of them, each time being ushered off in a fall of darkness only to appear onstage again in the next scene, none the worse for wear, Atkinson seems to breaking nearly every contract between author and reader.
You want to care about this character? Too bad, she’s gone a few dozen lines in from the start:
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath. Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate . . . “Oh, ma’am” Bridget cried suddenly, “She’s all blue, so she is.”
You want to feel sad about this poor baby’s death? Or the grieving mother? Don’t, because a page later none of it happened:
“A girl, Doctor Fellowes? May I see her?”
“Yes, Mrs. Todd, a bonny, bouncing, baby girl… She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time.”
You want to see what happens after the little girl down the lane is murdered, after Ursula is raped, after Ursula marries a wife-beater, after she shoots Hitler? I’ll tell you what happens: the little girl down the lane isn’t murdered, there is no rape, Ursula never marries, she doesn’t shoot Hitler. Spoiler alert. Oh wait, you can’t spoil a book with more than a dozen different “endings.”
And so it goes for five hundred pages, with Ursula’s lives ranging from a half-a-page in length to more than a hundred, each of them interrupted at some point by the “fall of darkness.” But it’s not “Game Over;” it’s “Resume Game.” And so the character dusts herself off, climbs on stage once again, and keeps moving forward, sometimes from that same fatal moment, sometimes leaping years back in time to begin moving toward it all over again. And some times, if she’s lucky, she gets the occasional moment of déjà vu that lets her evade some of the rougher moments in her past lives, dodging the bullet she only half-senses is wending her way.
This is an author throwing out all that is supposed to keep us readers engaged. And yet, somehow, it still works. Some of Ursula’s deaths, especially the early ones, are sharply witty in a macabre kind of way, like those posters with the Gorey illustrations of little kids dying in various inventive ways. But others are surprisingly moving, despite our assurance that “this too shall pass” at the mere turn of a page. And knowing things can change begins to make us fervently wish it to be so; we want these horrible things to not happen to her. And sometimes our wishes are granted. This being the early 20th Century though, not always. This is the century, after all, of World War I, the flu epidemic, World War II, the Holocaust, the Blitz. Some things, no matter how many lives one has, so long as one lives them, can’t be avoided.
We also care about those who move in and out of Ursula’s lives, all of whom pretty much remain the same regardless of which life they appear in, including but not limited to: Hugh, her warmly approving father; Sylvie, her more sarcastic and biting mother who is less than happy but doesn’t seem to know what to do about it; Aunt Izzie, the wild-at-heart there-when-she-is-needed black sheep aunt; and Maurice, her obnoxious rising-star in the Home Office brother. This novel is as much about familial relations as it is about historical events and Atkinson brings her usual sharply honed eye to bear on both equally well — the little domestic moments at dinner or at play and the more grandly dramatic moments involving exploding bombs and rescue missions racing against time.
The period details of the blitz bring that time fully to life, and not only in the big moments. One of my favorite lines is when one of the characters says to Ursula, “it’s just the general sense of dirtiness, as if one will never be clean again, as if poor old London will never be clean again. Everything is so awfully shabby, you know?” It’s such a mundane complaint, such a small domestic complaint — shabby — the sort of line that is so mundane, so “non-dramatic” that most authors wouldn’t have thought of it, and yet, it feels like such an honest human complaint, one that fits perfectly naturally along all the more dramatic, bigger reactions to constant bombings and fires and deaths — the sobbing and screaming and senses gone numb. “Perfect” is a word that could be ascribed to many of the lines and moments in this book.
Life After Life is a writer’s book beyond its polished craft though. It’s also an author showing us what’s under the novel’s hood. It’s almost as if we’re perched over her shoulder, watching her write draft after draft, rolling each up into a little ball and tossing it onto the floor (Yes, I know that doesn’t happen anymore, but “hitting ‘Save As’ and renaming each version” doesn’t quite have the same feel) before trying again: “Hmm, I could have Ursula eschew university. No, she’ll go into classical studies. No, better yet, modern languages. Maybe she ends up in Bletchley Park. Or, wait, what if she ends up at a table with Hitler. With a gun!”
This is a book then that can be enjoyed on several levels, even if neither works on us in the usual fashion. Then again, its strengths are what one would expect of any particularly good book: vivid characters; lively, precise prose that can startle with its originality; attention to detail; a range of emotions. As for its (few) weaknesses: her abusive husband is not as fully formed as the other characters, feeling a bit too much like a creature of plot. But as he’s given very little page time, it’s a minor complaint. It’s perhaps a little overly long; I admit to temporarily bogging down a little in the blitz scenes, as vibrant and wholly re-created as they are. I wouldn’t cut much, maybe 30-40 pages in that section, and only very judiciously as they contain some of the most powerful moments in the book. What’s more surprising is how non-repetitive it feels, this novel based on a Groundhog Day kind of premise, though writ larger than the Bill Murray movie (also a great story — we should see more of these).
So what does it all add up to, all these chances to relive a life? It would have been easy to take the Aesop’s Fable way out, to have Ursula “learn something” from the accretion of experience, some big idea about life the author could pass on to the reader via Ursula’s big epiphany at the end. So props to Atkinson for not going that route. Yes, Ursula sometimes remembers enough to avoid a horror or two, but it’s at the subconscious level. Yes, there’s some talk about cycles and time and reincarnation, mostly with a psychiatrist her concerned parents have her see for a while, but these are short-lived conversations and simply raise an issue rather than hammer anything home. Ursula doesn’t learn anything in enough detail and substance to “get life right.” But she does learn “You just have to get on with life… We only have one after all, we should try and do our best.” I don’t know what other lives Kate Atkinson might have lived, but based on this and her detective novels (highly recommended), she’s doing her best with her novelist one.