Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I loved this book, which was one of the most intense reading experiences I've had in a long while. I started it on a Sunday afternoon, thinking to just try a few pages before I went on to finish some weekend projects. I finally set it firmly aside about 9.30 that night, because if I knew if I didn't I'd still have been reading at 3 AM. I took it to work with me, to read at lunch and on the commute home, and finished it Monday evening. Those 529 pages just flew by.
I've been waffling a bit about this post, though, for a couple of reasons. First, because other people have already written wonderfully about this book, including Teresa at Shelf Love, Alex at Thinking in Fragments, and Helen at She Reads Novels. But even more because in the end I'm left with so many questions, and with the feeling that I missed something major, that perhaps my reading was too literal, that I was too caught up in the complexities of the plot and the deeper meaning of the story eluded me - or I read right past it, too intent on what happens next.
On the surface this is the story of Ursula Todd, born on a stormy winter night in February of 1911, her parents Hugh and Sylvie, her brothers and sister. It's not just one story of one life, it's a series, life after life. Ursula's first life ends as it begins, when she is born with the umbilical cord choking her. The doctor has been delayed by the storm, and Sylvie is caught in childbirth with only the family's maid Bridget to help her. The women don't know what to do, how to save the newborn infant, who dies. Two pages later, the scene is set again, re-set, but this time the doctor is there and the child, Ursula, is saved. As she grows up, if (when) her life follows a path that ends in tragedy, the story goes back to that February night. Sometimes the story resets to a different point in Ursula's life, to a different crossroads, so that she can turn to the left this time, rather than the right, follow a different path, until that story too comes to its end.
I found all these different stories fascinating in and of themselves. Sometimes I could see an end approaching, and though I dreaded its coming, I was so curious to see where Ursula's story would begin again, and where it would take her next. Two of the story lines I found so heartbreaking that I felt such a rush of relief when they ended, and she could escape to start somewhere else again. One of these I thought turned on a very weak plot element, and strange as it may sound to talk of implausibility in a book like this, I found it difficult to accept a sexual assault on a staircase in the family home in broad daylight. The consequences on the other hand I found all too plausible, and sad.
Somewhere along the way, as these stories diverged and converged, I began to wonder why all this was happening. Who was shaping these events, or who was resetting the clock, God or History or Fate or Providence? The opening scene, in a cafe in Munich in November of 1930, suggests some purpose. It reminded me of Connie Willis's time travel novels, though, where the historians have learned that they cannot get close enough to major events to influence or impact them, they are simply pushed out into another less fraught time. (I was also reminded of Terry Pratchett's Alternative Pant Leg Theory of History, not to mention Chrestomanci's Related Worlds.) God or Fate seems to be pushing Ursula, but I was never sure what He or She or It was pushing her toward, except another chance at survival, at life. And why Ursula in the first place?
It was interesting that Ursula herself develops a sense of previous lives, so that she learns to avoid some dangers. It takes serious efforts to avoid some fates, such as the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which costs more than one life. On the other hand there seem to be some fixed points, which cannot alter, such as Pam's marriage and Hugh's death, and Lavinia Nesbit with her little cat brooch. I am still haunted by Nancy's recurring fate, and by that of the fox (and disappointed that Maurice never ever in a single one of the many stories gets his just desserts).
The final pages brought even more questions. Are others' lives repeating and changing along with Ursula's? Isn't that what Sylvie's final experience with the scissors suggests? What does Teddy's resurrection, so late in the book, mean for Ursula's story - and for Sylvie's? Can the changes flow backwards? Is there an end to this chain of lives? For Ursula, it can't be with the events in Hyde Park, which seem fitting, if the story then circles back to the start, but goes so wrong. But then Ursula's experience with Frieda, with its choice of an ending, should be where the story goes wrong, if "something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed." And what in the world is the meaning of that last chapter, with Mrs Haddock, which reprints word for word her earlier appearance?
I am clearly going to have to buy my own copy of this book, so that I can read it all over again, while I puzzle all these things out, or simply decide to live with the mysteries. In the meantime, which of Kate Atkinson's books should I look for next?