Beach Books

Life After Life: Trying It Over

The Beachcomber
By PERDITA BUCHAN | Jul 18, 2013

Kate Atkinson is a true original. Best known for her crime novels featuring the shambolic but charismatic detective Jackson Brodie, Atkinson has a Dickensian ability to create numerous quirky characters and plotlines that tangle and overlap in ways impossible to predict. Those Chinese puzzle plots keep you turning the pages, but it is the odd, yet entirely believable, characters that bring her world to life.

Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year, was not a crime novel and neither is her latest, Life After Life (Little Brown Publishers). It is, however, prime Atkinson: just try to put it down.

Life After Life begins with a brief scene dated November, 1930: a young English woman shoots Hitler. Her name is Ursula.

On a snowy night, February 11, 1910, Ursula Todd is born into an upper, middle-class English family. The baby never draws breath. Caught in the storm, the doctor arrives too late. On February 11, 1910, she is born again and survives, only to die in a drowning accident at five. February 11, 1910 comes once more, and this time, she dies just short of her fifth birthday by falling off a roof. “Darkness falls,” Atkinson writes, and we return to the image of heavy snow, like a blank canvas.

Once Ursula makes it past early childhood, events recur and the ability to build on past experience begins. Four times, Ursula dies in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Each time it is because Bridget, the housemaid, goes up to London for the Armistice celebration, catches influenza and infects the children. The last two times, an inexplicable sense of dread causes Ursula to try to prevent Bridget from going. The fifth time, she succeeds by pushing Bridget down the stairs and breaking her arm. Bridget doesn’t go to London and no one gets influenza. Ursula, as a result, is sent to a London psychiatrist, Dr. Kellet.

Dr. Kellet introduces the young Ursula to the concepts of reincarnation and Amor Fati (which the child hears as “a more fatty”). Amor Fati is the “simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good.” He also quotes Nietzsche, “Werde, der du bist… It means become who you are.” This will, of course, be Ursula’s task.

Ursula’s series of lives, perhaps linear, perhaps parallel, are compelling, but the real strength of the book is in its evocation of time and place and its cast of characters.

Fox Corner, where Ursula grows up (eventually making it to adulthood) is a big house, “vaguely Lutyens in style,” set in gentle countryside, near London but still rural. The Fox Corner household includes her mercurial mother, Sylvie, and her kindly banker father, Hugh, who calls Ursula “little bear” and refers to his study as “the growlery.” Siblings are a callous older brother, Maurice; beloved older sister, Pamela, who remains a sturdy and reliable anchor through all Ursula’s incarnations; and two doted-on younger brothers, Teddy and Jimmy. “Downstairs” is composed of Cook – grumpy, no nonsense Mrs. Glover – and stolid Bridget, the Irish housemaid. Hugh’s renegade younger sister, Izzie, is a periodic glamorous, if disruptive, visitor.

This is a place and a family that you would want to be born into again and again. But even as Atkinson conjures up this bucolic world of poppy fields and bluebell woods, tea time in a summer garden, she reminds you that evil is never far away: a murdered child, a farmer trampled by a bull, the damaged survivors of World War I – even Ursula’s own déjà vu that casts a constant shadow on the present.

Sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it, or what mundane event was about to occur – if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse – as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

Seminal days in Ursula’s life can be revisited several times, like February 11, 1926, her sixteenth birthday. Once it involves a brutal first kiss; the next time, a rape that ends in pregnancy and abortion, propelling her into an abusive marriage. In the birthday’s last reprise, however, she deals summarily with the would-be rapist and all is well.

Then it is 1939, 1940 and World War II begins. Ursula works as a civilian volunteer during the Blitz. Atkinson’s violent and harrowing descriptions bring that desperate chapter of England’s war to vivid life:

A grisly tableau was the first thing to greet them – mangled bodies were strewn around, many of them no more than limbless torsos like tailor’s dummies with their clothes blown off … A stretcher bearer, lacking   as yet, any live casualties, was picking up limbs – arms and legs that were sticking out of the rubble. He looked as if he was intending to piece the dead together at a later date. Did someone do that? Ursula wondered. In the mortuaries – try and match people up like a macabre jigsaw?

The war years bring love affairs and family tragedies. Ursula herself dies several times in London bombings, and once by her own hand in a German cellar as Russian troops approach.

The leap, via Ursula’s marriage to a German in the 1930s, from London and Fox Corner to Munich and a sojourn at Berchtesgarden with Eva Braun, might seem implausible. Yet so real does Atkinson make the young Eva Braun and her entourage, down to a pair of yapping Scotties, that one believes. Although a desperate Ursula kills herself and her daughter in 1945, we know that this period shapes her destiny. She knows, finally, how to become who she truly is.

Despite its experimental nature, Life After Life can be read as a family saga that simply takes more than one direction. And it’s not all grim. Many scenes are very funny, especially those involving madcap Izzie. The novel also pays homage to something essential about England before, between and during two world wars – the lost world quality – that draws us to dramas like “Downton Abbey.”

When Ursula is trapped in the German cellar with her little daughter, Frieda, she tells the child stories of Fox Corner. She told her about bluebells in the spring in the wood near Fox Corner, about the flowers that grew in the meadow beyond the copse – flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion and oxeye daisies. She told her about the smell of new mown grass from an English summer lawn, the scent of Sylvie’s roses, and the sour-sweet taste of apples in the orchard. She talked of the oak trees in the lane, and the yews in the graveyard and the beech tree in the garden at Fox Corner.

It is everything to live for – time and again.

Perdita Buchan is a freelance writer who lives in Ocean Grove. Her book Utopia, New Jersey, about utopian communities in early 20th century, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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