Monday, May 20, 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Recently, I have described several books as having interesting premises that the author fell short in developing. Life After Life (second novel I've read with that title in the past month) also has an intriguing premise, but the manner in which Kate Atkinson builds upon that premise keeps the reader engaged through 500 pages (or 15+ hours of the audio version, which I listened to). 

What is that premise? Ursula Todd, the protagonist, is stillborn--but then she is born again and again and again, each time making decisions (or having others make decisions) that send her life in a slightly or hugely different direction. While Ursula feels somewhat plagued by a sense of deja vu (stronger in some lives than others) and her parents send her to a therapist because of her odd jumbling of time, that sense of deja vu is often what protects her in a subsequent life. She and Teddy die from the influenza when their maid Bridget and her boyfriend bring back the virus from an Armistice Day spent celebrating in London; in subsequent lives, she takes ever more extreme action to prevent Bridget from going to London. 

As we work through Ursula's many lives, we get to know not only Ursula but her middle-class English parents, the somewhat distant Sylvie and lovable Hugh; her sister Pammy; her three brothers, the obnoxious Morris, everybody's favorite Teddy, and baby Jimmy; her madcap aunt Izzy; various lovers and friends; one husband and one college-boy rapist; numerous co-workers in a variety of professions; and even Eva Braun and Hitler. The first section of the book deals with lives in which Ursula does not survive childhood (roughly  1910 to 1920). The second section allows her to reach adulthood, though few of these longer lives approach any kind of happiness, in part because the bombing of London during World War II plays a significant role in much of this section of the book. While I've seen several reader-reviews of the book that complained that too many British authors are writing about women's roles during the war, I found this material interesting and many of the descriptions of events during the bombing (and Ursula's deaths) gasp-inducing.  The third section was a bit problematic, shifting perspectives; revisiting a life in which Ursula, drawing on her remembered history, realizes that killing Hitler would save the world a great deal of grief, and shoots the Fuhrer  (this event was actually described very early in the book, but I had managed to forget it by the time I heard it for the second time); and ending with an unusually positive "surprise" followed by a  chapter from a minor character's perspective that I could not understand the significance of. 

The hyper-logical side of my brain wished about half way through the book that I had started constructing a chart that showed the length of each life, how she died, and what changes set her on a path different from her previous life. The less-logical side of my brain reminded me to just let the story flow, thinking not about specifics but about the ideas: Do we live multiple times? Is deja vu a memory of previous lives? Can small decisions truly change the course of our lives--or even of history? How much do seemingly insignificant moments shape who we are and what happens to us? 

The book was not perfect: the segment in which, after having a breakdown, Ursula makes a conscious decision to kills Hitler, did not seem to "fit" to me, and the ending was disconcerting. Overall, however, I found Life After Life compelling and would highly recommend it. 

Favorite passages:
Sylvie was surprised by the rabid patriotism of the women on the platform. Surely war should make pacifists of all women. 

Ursula found it easier than she had expected to lock this occurrence away. After all, hadn't Sylvie herself said that the definition of an indiscretion was that you didn't speak of it afterwards? Ursula imagined a cupboard in her mind, a corner one, in simple pitch pine. Howie and the back stairs were put on a high shelf and the key was firmly turned in the lock. 

"All those names, Teddy said," gazing at the cenotaph. "All those lives. And then again now. I think there is something wrong with the human race. It undermines everything one would like to believe in, don't you think? "


No comments:

Post a Comment