Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.
Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?
Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)
The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.
Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.
While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)
I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.
Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.