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It’s an unsettling experience reading Kate Atkinson’s latest book if, like me, you’re a Henny Penny, always expecting the sky to fall on your head. Life After Life (Doubleday) looks at how a person’s fate can turn on the slightest of decisions or smallest of events. It’s about the fragility of life, how close death is to us, how easily it might come in a moment. Oh and it’s devastatingly good.
Ursula Todd is born on a freezing winter’s night in 1910. The doctor is stuck in the snow, the cord is wrapped round the baby’s neck and she dies without drawing a single breath. But what if on that same cold night the doctor sets out earlier and manages to get through before the snow closes the roads? Snip, snip with a pair of surgical scissors and bonny baby girl Ursula lives.
This is how the novel progresses throughout the course of Ursula’s life. As she makes choices big and small, and is caught up in world events she can’t control, sometimes she dies, and sometimes she lives. It sounds a bit like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, which I suppose it is, except this is something more layered and cleverer. Chapter by chapter Atkinson vividly colours the world she has created and every turn Ursula’s life takes seems credible – even the most incredible ones
Ursula has an idyllic childhood in a rambling old house with a beautiful mother, a loving father and a gaggle of siblings. And yet still potential disaster awaits her in the corridors and country lanes: sexual violence, unwanted pregnancy, the death of a friend. But Ursula has what the rest of us lack – the chance to relive her life time and again until she gets it right at last.
This is a contrivance that has the potential to be irritating but instead it’s compelling to begin on each new telling of her story wondering if this time darkness will fall or if Ursula will somehow make it through. It helps that she lives in tumultuous times, with two wars and a Spanish flu epidemic rich in possibilities for random death.
Quite a chunk of Life After Life is given to Ursula’s wartime experiences during the Blitz in London…but also, thanks to her parallel lives, in Germany where she draws close enough to Hitler to change the course of history. This is a period you can read about in many novels; but with Atkinson you are there, living and breathing it, whether Ursula is sheltering in a cellar with bombs raining down or volunteering as an Air Raid Warden.
Some might say the line between good and bad writing is just as easily crossed as the line between life and death…Atkinson takes bold risks with this novel but seems not to put a foot close to it nevertheless. This is an extraordinary piece of fiction, bleak and yet life affirming, brilliantly engineered and inventive. It’s the must-read of the year so far – too good to miss even if you are one of life’s chronic worriers.