Thursday, 27 February 2014

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life begins in November 1930 with Ursula Todd pointing a gun at Hitler in a crowded pub. She pulls the trigger. Darkness descends. How has this happened? Who is this woman? How will history look without the evil shadow of Hitler looming over it? From the first page this novel asks questions, and it doesn't always answer them.

Ursula is born on the 11th of February 1910 as the snow falls outside, barring the doctor's way to the house. Within minutes of birth she is dead, strangled by her umbilical cord before she could take her first breath. 11th of February 1910 again. Ursula is born, but a pair of scissors are standing by to cut the cord. Each time Ursula dies during this novel, this is where it starts again. Fox Corner, blanketed in snow. A fresh start for another life and another story to be written. Some elements are the same on each occasion and marginal differences shape the way that life is to be this time.

I love Atkinson's style of prose- it's gently atmospheric, sweeping the reader through woodlands and regency revival dining-rooms, the comforts and fashions of a large Edwardian family of the upper middle class. Her family will prove to be one of the most crucial constant forces in Ursula's many versions of life. Maurice, her brother is always cruel and cold, sister Pamela always opinionated and strong. Her little brother Teddy is everybody's favourite, sweet and loved by everyone. The reader really gets a sense of 'home' from Fox Corner; the love of the family, the abundance of nature. It's a happy place and the warmth shines through, anchoring Ursula to the World in every life she lives.

Death comes in a variety of ways for Ursula throughout the course of the novel, as "Darkness Falls" at the end of each section. She is reborn to die and die again, always starting on the same snowy night in February. She drowns on a beach, slips from a frosty roof, and dies of Spanish flu in the post War celebrations. On her 16th birthday, a naive Ursula is raped on the landing by one of Maurice's friends. Pregnant, she is shunned by her mother and flees to London for an illegal abortion. This Ursula, subjected to unwanted sexual attention from a colleague, wonders if there is something unseen to her but obvious to others that attracts this kind of behaviour from men. This section was beautifully and heartbreakingly written, highlighting the downward spiral of a woman crippled by low self-esteem as a result of abuse. It makes it clear that it can happen to anyone. Lonely and ashamed she turns to drink for comfort until the illusion of love comes along. Another betrayal, Ursula is married to a misogynist and a liar.

In another life, Ursula avoids the rape. Empowered, feisty Ursula lives abroad, has affairs, a daughter in one case, adventures. In others she is embroiled in Nazi politics. Repeatedly bombed in the Blitz. I loved the Blitz section; the assembly of characters that Ursula lived and worked alongside in the 1940s provides so much colour and life to the destroyed London. The attitude and the stoicism of the Wartime Londoners comes across beautifully and each event that befalls Ursula is written with sensitivity, a degree of charm and in some cases a fatalistic resignation. This section feels exhausting, infinitely dangerous and its presence overshadows the rest of the books somewhat. Interestingly, the Blitz leads down some very different paths to similar deaths. The skill of the storytelling in this section is incredible, all the loose ends tied up in the repeated fates of sometimes strangers and sometimes acquaintances in London.

I absolutely adored this book. I could not cram the words into my eyes fast enough. Beautifully written, full of engaging characters and a truly heroic protagonist. It's part family saga, part historical whilwind and it's dizzyingly impressive. I love the idea that even chance encounters and happenstance can have enormous, often fatal effects on the course of a life. The idea too that sometimes our lives are determined by our choices, sometimes it's the choices that others make that affect us and sometimes it's the lack of choice that leads down a certain road. Everbybody has those "What if?" moments in their lives. Sometimes it's not until time has elapsed that you realised how much of an impact certain past decisions have made to turn a life in any given direction...

Ursula is semi aware of her position (in some lives) occasionally feeling intense dread at pivotal moments when her paths diverge. She has disturbing dreams and Déjà vu, remembers things that never happened. This is woven beautifully into the philosophy and the behaviour of Ursula who seems dimly aware of the power of this prior knowledge. I love the partial awareness she has of her opportunity to live life again and the action she takes to steer her course, however better or worse it may turn out. The reader is really in quite a powerful position, able to see from their vantage point the web of choices available to Ursula and the ultimate end point of each of these paths. Thought provoking, immersive and incredibly well written with immense skill, warmth and craft.

Loved it. Everybody should read it.

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