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Onyx reviews: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/26/2013

There are a lot of ways for a person to die, and Ursula Todd, born in February 1910, experiences most of them during her oddball existence. It wouldn't be correct to say "her oddball life," since she has many of them. While the book's title might seem to allude to the afterlife, it actually refers to the fact that Ursula lives life after life after life, all in parallel. 

She dies while being born, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, on a night where snowfall prevents the doctor from arriving in time to assist—but that's only what happens during one of her lives. In alternate realities, various people produce scissors and rescue her.

She drowns. She falls off the roof. She is a victim of the influenza outbreak at the end of World War I. She is a victim of domestic violence, is killed in the London Blitz and during the carpet bombing of Berlin in the final days of World War II. She has a stroke in her sixties while the Six-Day War rages in the Middle East. Each time she starts again, and each time she is a little more aware that her life is unusual. Her therapist talks to her about reincarnation, describing existence as a circle, but Ursula sees it as more of a palimpsest, with hidden lives buried beneath the current one.

As she lives and re-lives, making different decisions that send her down radically different paths, she experiences near-constant déjà vu. She doesn't precisely remember her other lives (not past lives, for they occur in parallel), but she has a sense of impending doom that makes her choose differently. Other lives are impacted, too. She warns the family maid against going to London to join in the VE Day celebrations (or pushes her down the stairs to prevent the excursion), where in some versions of reality, she will bring the influenza back to Fox Corner, the cozy family home where Ursula grows up with her parents and four siblings. She encourages a family friend to take a different route home, thereby putting her beyond the grasp of a murderer. She has an affair with a high ranking official in the Admiralty, or she doesn't. It lasts through the war, or it doesn't.

The constant reboots, always indicated by the falling of darkness, can be a little disorienting at first, but readers will soon fall into the rhythm of the tale. It's a little like playing a computer game. Each time the POV character is killed, the game starts over again but the player is a little wiser and knows which pitfalls to avoid. But there are always more pitfalls. The concept is also similar to what a writer experiences when he or she writes him- or herself into a corner. Sometimes it's necessary to scrap everything (or everything back to a certain point) and start again. In one version of reality, Ursula is raped at sixteen by one of her oldest brother's friends, gets pregnant, has an abortion and begins a downward spiral in which she ends up marrying an abusive man who ultimately kills her. Readers will be dismayed by this terrible existence, because by this point they will be quite fond of Ursula, who is a bright, smart, entertaining character. Fortunately, she prevents all of these terrible things from happening to her in subsequent lives by making subtly different choices.

War plays a large part in the story. Ursula experiences two world wars, and they impact her life (lives) in various ways. Some of her family members or neighbors suffer terribly or are lost in the conflicts. In one reality, she is caught behind enemy lines when she marries a German citizen during a year abroad. She becomes friends with Eva Braun and even visits Hitler's hideout, Berchtesgaden, and gets to see the tyrant up close. She volunteers during WWII in England in another life and sees day after day the terrible impact of the Blitz, the cold statistics of which she has to log into files as part of her job. Some scenes are repeated, but they're never exactly the same. In one version, rescuers attempt to extract her from the basement of her bombed-out apartment building; in another, she is the rescuer. Ursula comes to believe that her role is to bear witness to war so that its atrocity will not be relegated to simple history. On the other hand, as the book's prolog implies, she may even be able to prevent the war.

This is a philosophical novel that is also steeped in literary influences, for Ursula is extremely well read and can drop an appropriate quotation from a wide variety of sources in any circumstance. All the temporal jumping around is reminiscent of the non-linear Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the main character perceives himself to be a time traveler in his own life. Because of the conceit on which it is based, the book could almost be called science fiction, but Atkinson has never been one to hew too closely to any standard genre. 

Despite its post-modern structure, the book's greatest feature is its depiction of the Todd family: the solid father, the somewhat distant and acerbic mother, Ursula's various siblings who range from unlikable (eldest Maurice) to loveable (Pamela), and her avant-garde aunt, Izzie, who has her own shameful past (which plays out in a number of ways) but who is always there when Ursula needs a confidant. Life at Fox Corner, despite the various tragedies, seems idyllic and supportive, providing Ursula with the solid foundation she needs to accomplish whatever it is she needs to do to "get it right"—to make the right choices at the right times for the betterment of herself and those around her. 

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