A fascinating evocation of multiple lifetimes from this innovative and accomplished novelist.
Kate Atkinson is known for her playfulness and writerly experimentation. In previous novels she has played with point of view (‘head-hopping’) with such confident skill that readers – rightly – have had to trust that the story would eventually come together in a satisfying manner while being kept on the tenterhooks of possible narrative anarchy. She has used the genre framework of crime fiction in some of her novels, but it is the play of voices and point of view, the convergence of disparate story lines and characters and her lovely writing that have made them stand out.
Life After Life flirts with the concept of parallel universes, at the same time challenging the use of linear time in narrative and exploiting the conventions of the period family drama. Like Hilary Mantel, Atkinson is a genuinely experimental writer (Mantel created a whole new narrative point of view in Wolf Hall) and, also like Mantel, she is able to combine her experimentation with beautifully written, extremely readable and enjoyable stories.
Ursula is the protagonist of Life After Life. She might have died at birth, and perhaps she did. She might have died many times after that. And perhaps she did. The novel loops backwards and forwards between the possible and the fortuitous. It makes us think of the fragility of life and the shuddering narrow escapes we have all experienced: ‘”Well,” Sylvie [Ursula’s mother] said. Such a fine line between living and dying.’ Ursula herself describes her past and future as ‘a palimpsest’ and at one point muses that ‘Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes’. Characteristically of Atkinson, this lyrical image is quickly deflated: ‘Could echoes cascade? Perhaps not.’
As the story builds, Ursula gains some insight into the pattern and begins to trust her moments of prescience and déjà vu. She attempts to shape her lives and deaths to the existence she wants herself, and others, to have. Sometimes the wings of the small bird, or the black bat, or the darkness descending, come unexpectedly; at other times she invokes them, but: ‘Sometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future.’
Ursula’s family, friends and acquaintances are all affected by the tidal movement of time and life in the novel. They reappear again and again – her complicated mother, Sylvie; her beloved father, Hugh; her brothers – the beguiling Teddy and the egregious Maurice; her sister Pamela; her lovers; her bohemian aunt Izzie; a possible husband; her friend and family servant Bridget and Teddy’s true love, Nancy. Hitler and Eva Braun also make their multiple appearances. All their stories mutate and reconfigure, as Ursula’s do. Their narratives come in waves and ripples, overlapping, receding, eddying:
‘What if we had the chance to do it again and again,’ Teddy said, ‘until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’
Life After Life begins with a murder in a German cafe in 1930 – or does it? It encompasses the years before and between the two World Wars and beyond. Ursula’s circle is educated, reasonably affluent, upper-middle-class. There are the langorous summer afternoons on the lawn or the terrace; there are quietly humorous interchanges between people; there are sadness, conflict, domestic and sexual violence and tragedy behind the genteel facade; there is unquestioning acceptance of belonging to England – not patriotism in its cruder aspects, but love of country – that sends young men again and again to fight and die (or not), while the women remain behind and knit, take in evacuated children, or do dangerous work in the Blitz.
On one level, the novel is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, although Orlando’s different lives were consecutive and involved reincarnation. But there is the same jolt of dislocation each time the story spins away from the now, and the same sense of relief and pleasure when it resumes, in past or present, and our heroine is still the focus of the story. Ursula’s possible/different lives are synchronous and mutually exclusive, despite partly replicating the same important facts or key emotional details in all the alternative flashbacks and flash-forwards. With each repetition of detail skilful elision and subtle alteration are used to add new layers and nuances. In a very few cases this dexterity lapses – as, for example, in Ursula’s sojourn/s in Germany – and over-familiar events seem too faithfully duplicated, interrupting the momentum of the narrative; but only very temporarily.
On another level Life After Life is strongly reminiscent of Mary Wesley’s gently witty and nostalgic novels about a time, a class, a way of life in England that have passed, if they ever existed. And, of course, Groundhog Day has to spring to mind. By the end of the novel, the story has almost moved into the genre of alternative history, but not quite. In Atkinson’s hands it can’t be that simple:
She had been here before. She had never been here before. There was always something just out of sight, just around a corner, something she could never chase down – something that was chasing her down. She was both the hunter and the hunted … She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere …
Life After Life is a dazzling tour de force: adopting and subverting the framework of a charming costume drama/family saga while simultaneously questioning not only the conventions of time in narrative and of fictional character development, but also the certainties of history.
Kate Atkinson Life After Life Doubleday 2013 PB 480pp $32.95
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