Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Random House NZ, RRP $36.99, ISBN 9780385618687, Available now.
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
11 February 1910, a baby girl is born dead with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor stuck in snow.
11 February 1910, a baby girl is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor has made it through the snow to ensure she breaths her first. And so we meet Ursula (“little bear”), whose life after life we will follow. Ursula is a soul afloat in life, beholden to the dangers of one small choice, one small change that can spell her end. She is born dead, she drowns, she falls out a window, she gets influenza – there are a myriad ways to die but each time she does it’s 11 February 1910 again and it’s snowing.
Oh, how I loved this book! At first thought the premise didn’t seem like one I would enjoy but Kate Atkinson handles it so incredibly deftly that I found myself completely drawn in to Ursula’s lives, shocked each time she died, waiting to see how she would get through the next life, the choice she would make that would see her navigate the danger.
Atkinson is also a master of characters, hers are so beautifully drawn. She makes sure her characters are human, likeable, dislikeable and capable of so many emotions.
“To war? You are going to war?” she had shouted at him when he enlisted and it struck her that she had never shouted at him before. Perhaps she should have.
If there was to be a war, Hugh explained to her, he didn’t want to look back and know that he had missed it, that others had stepped forward for their country’s honour and he had not. “It may be the only adventure I ever have,” he said.
“Adventure?” she echoed in disbelief. “What about your children, what about your wife?”
“But it’s for you that I am doing this,” he said, looking exquisitely pained, a misunderstood Theseus. Sylvie disliked him intensely in that moment.
There’s also a generous amount of humour throughout Life After Life. Ursula struggles through the Influenza epidemic following WW1, dying several times before she finally finds a way to avoid contagion, and it becomes almost slapstick.
Darkness, and so on.
Then Atkinson hits you between the eyes with a moment so touching, so human you just thinking about weeping.
“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”
“And if we are killed?”
“Then others must remember us.”
Such a tour de force.