Kate Atkinson has now won the Costa Book Award twice in the past three years—for her companion novels, A God in Ruins (2015) and the stunning Life After Life (2013). To celebrate, here are my thoughts on the first one, which I just finished.
Life after Life can be seen as a kind of thought experiment: what if a life, when cut off by early death, could be lived again, and again and again? Would anything change, and would the person who lives it learn anything from her previous experiences?
This is what happens to Ursula Todd, who is born, and then born again, and again, on a snowy night in England in 1910. She arrives stillborn the first time, but we follow her as she doggedly relives her own life, which gradually extends in length until she lives as far as the London Blitz and, once or twice, into postwar peacetime and poverty. A diagram of the book’s structure would look very different from most novels: more like a tree, with several of Ursula’s early lives cut off by accident and illness (in the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918) at the trunk, and then longer branches developing as Ursula moves into adulthood—some subtly altered, and others veering off in starkly different directions.
Some moments act as pressure points. One, a lazy summer afternoon in the yard of her large family’s comfortable home outside London, contains the seeds of events that fuel multiple divergences. Other moments feel like twigs rather then branches—possibilities for relationships that never come to fruition. In most of Ursula’s lives, she remains single, and only in one life does she have a child.
If this were a work of science fiction, we would expect the author to open her hand and explain, or at least suggest, how all this works. Is Ursula the only one who has, or is cursed with, this ability to relive her own life? Or are other people branching away into parallel lives as well? From one life to the next, Ursula feels intimations and omens from her earlier experiences, which can move her to act differently, averting the previous outcome. If she isn’t the only one this is happening to, is she the only one with the sensitivity to break through the membrane of death and benefit from her experiences?
Atkinson has little interest in spelling out her premise; the closest she comes is an allusion to reincarnation, in conversations a young Ursula has with her psychiatrist, to whom she is sent after a troubling incident rising from one of her trace memories. Of course, Ursula’s experience is different from the traditional understanding of reincarnation as the serial inhabiting of different lives over time.
But her situation offers a vivid illustration of one aspect of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics—what’s known as a Level 3 parallel universe, in which, at every moment, a person’s choices give rise to other probable universes, each slightly different. The theory doesn’t allow for communication among these universes, but that hasn’t stopped many science fiction writers from imagining it happening. Atkinson’s branching structure also suggests video game progressions, as well as, maybe, a hypertext story. I don’t think Atkinson meant the novel to be any of those things, but it brought up these questions for me as strongly as any science fiction narrative.
What she does offer, as the magnificent writer she is, is a deeply intimate, richly novelistic sense of a person living her life, and the people and events that surround her. For me, the repetitions and variations through Ursula’s many lives had the effect of intensifying the sense of being inside this character’s skin, as well as that sense of readerly poignancy when recognizing the return of a character or place, just slightly shifted.
When Ursula lives through several horrifying variants of the Blitz, it becomes more powerful for me, not numbingly repetitive. If a novel is a way of intimately knowing a person or a cultural point in time, then the refraction of Ursula’s experiences among her different lives gives a heightened, more-dimensional sense of her and her time—a kind of turbo-powered literary portrait.
I wondered at one point if this novel might crystallize a new genre: of alternate lives, as opposed to alternate histories like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. (Life After Life does venture a little into alternate history too.) If there are any more books like this, I’d like to know. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone doing it with more breathtaking intensity than Kate Atkinson has here.