Kate Atkinson and quantum physics

LifeAfterLife3Kate 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.

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15 thoughts on “Kate Atkinson and quantum physics”

  1. WOW Miriam! What a compelling review. This book has been on my reading list for awhile, along with Atkinson’s other books.

    Sounds like a “must read” and not just a read. Thanks.

  2. Very thoughtful piece and an excellent guide to what to look for in the novel. I’m forwarding this blog entry to my wife, a dedicated reader of Anglo/Irish/Scottish fiction.

    1. Thanks, Sam! I thought some mild spoilers would be okay, since it came out in 2013. If Mrs. G. does read it, I want to hear what she thinks – some people apparently find it maddening.

  3. Miriam, thanks for this. I hadn’t looked at this book as science fiction or string theory and you’ve opened up whole new levels of meaning in it. I was concerned about starting it, because I was afraid it would be boring and repetitious, but not for a second was it. I loved reading it and look forward to the companion book (as well as anything Kate Atkinson writes).

    1. Thanks, Marie! It’s not that I want Atkinson to have written a work of speculative fiction, though in a way it is. But I do want to consider it alongside other spec fiction work. Would love to hear from sci fi readers about this!

  4. At last, a “Born Again” book that I would enjoy. It sounds complex, really creative idea, and something I’d like to read. Thanks for writing this, Miriam!

  5. What a fascinating book. Loved your use of the tree as a structural image – as well as your suggestions about multiple, if not parallel, possible lives. At least metaphorically, that resonates deeply. In my present life, it’s hard for me to sustain the concentration needed for challenging reading. But I’m hoping to gain it in a future iteration – with any luck, including this book.

  6. Miriam, I’m reading A God in Ruins and came across these lines, p.77: “this was when people still believed in the dependable nature of time–a past, a present, a future–the tenses that Western civilization was constructed on. Over the coming years Teddy tried, in the manner of a simple layman, to keep up with theoretical physics, via articles in the Telegraph and an heroic struggle with Stephen Hawking in 1996, but admitted defeat when he came across string theory. From then on he took every day as it came, hour by hour.” So it seems K.A. maybe did exactly what you suggested. This book jumps around in time even in a single paragraph, quite interesting.

    1. Hi Marie, glad you’re reading A God in Ruins! Yes, Atkinson really shreds the usual present-flashback structure there, so you just kind of have to roll with it and be in the time period you’re in. And thanks for pulling that passage out – must be a little wink from her. What gets me about both books is that, without the usual narrative arc, she still gives us such an intense emotional ride.

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