Hazel McHaffie

Life after Life

A bonus of lockdown was acquiring ‘new’ books from those donated to our outdoor bookshelf. One such was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, about which I’d seen and read excellent reports. (I’m horrified to discover it’s eight years since it came out, and I’m only now getting round to reading it! Too many books, not enough hours in the day.) But somehow, living in this parallel universe of pandemic for the last eighteen months has made Atkinson’s premise – What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? – even more pertinent; so perhaps after all it’s a good time to read it.

The hook on the back cover is tantalising:
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life?

An ingenious premise upon which to build a novel, huh? And it challenges us to think, What would I do differently, given the opportunity? Would I even want to change things?

Add to that the time period of the story – 1910-1967 – including two great wars, and the implications of a second chance assume even more momentous proportions.
What if a pretty English girl had shot Adolf Hitler in November 1930?
What if a pretty British girl was actually living in Germany when war was declared?
The historic detail relating to big events gives a solid skeleton to this story, but inevitably some factual accuracy is forfeited in the name of literature, as the author herself acknowledges: To find the truth as the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the way.

Ursula Todd, born in 1910, is a strange child with odd ‘powers’. Was it reincarnation, or clairvoyance, or deja vu, or living in a parallel universe, sixth sense, or what? Certainly her mother thinks she needs ‘fixing’. A Harley Street psychiatrist does his best when she’s 10, but as she grows up, and bad things happen to her, Ursula persists in wondering if death is the answer; she can then have another stab at life and hopefully a happier ending.

We follow her different lives through her rural upbringing with an indulgent father and a superior mother, adult life in London, during the Blitz, and in post-war Berlin. She goes from knowing child, to rape victim, abused wife, assassin, mistress, rescue warden. Back and forth. At times she doesn’t even recognise herself.

It was, I must admit somewhat discombobulating to live through a traumatic experience of the death of a child or young person, only to have them return later in the book very much alive because an alternative version of their lives is being narrated. Short of cataloguing each iteration, I couldn’t hold them all in my head, so went for simply enjoying the moment.

Something of the challenge underpinning this story is captured in these few lines of dialogue about half way through the book:
‘Don’t you wonder sometimes,’  Ursula said. ‘If one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in – I don’t know, say, a Quaker household – surely things would be different.’
   ‘Do you think Quakers would kidnap a baby?’ Ralph asked mildly.
   ‘Well, if they knew what was going to happen they might.’
   ‘But nobody knows what’s going to happen. And anyway he might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers. You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him. Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood?’

For me this book came into its own in the section A Long Hard War, where Ursula is a warden dealing with the aftermath of the bombings in London. It poignantly captures the fragility of life, the human tragedy on both sides, the courage and stamina people can find within them, and the importance of small things.

When asked what the book is about, Atkinson says, It’s about being English. That’s not what I took from it. For me it’s about something much more complex; an unravelling of our multi-layered selves, who we are in our imaginations as well as in different circumstances. And how our destiny can be determined by an accident of birth, or a chance conversation, or a seemingly casual encounter or decision. I’m still mulling over all that … and isn’t that one measure of a successful story?

 

 

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