My rating: 4 stars
Occasionally, incidents that can be perceived as inconsequential, such as a stolen kiss, can have a huge impact on someone’s life. Their future effects may compel people to adjust their hopes and dreams. What if we could change those events? Ursula Todd, the main character in Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, was born and died various times. She had the opportunity to live her life over and over again. Sometimes little changes in her or others’ actions completely transformed her personality and her future. Readers are presented with various possible stories in which Ursula takes centre stage and that also serve to paint a picture of the first half of the 20th century in Europe.
Ursula was born on 11 February 1910. She would have died with her chord around her neck if Dr Fellowes hadn’t arrived on the exact moment to save her. Her mother was called Sylvie, and she was her third child. Sylvie had met her husband, Hugh, when she was 17 years old. Her father was a gambler and, when he died, she and her mother had to deal with the creditors. Hugh, who was becoming much respected in the world of banking, saved her from poverty. Ursula managed to survive until her fifth summer, when she died drowned in the sea.
That wasn’t the first time she perished, though. The first chapter of the book recalls the moment when Ursula tried to kill Hitler in November 1930. She died in the process. Next, she didn’t survive her birth. The chord was wrapped around her neck and Dr Fellowes arrived too late to save her.
“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”
Ursula was born many times. At first, we are given a new account of the day when she was born and of what happened differently from the time when she had previously died. Each time we gain more knowledge about her family and her life, which seems to progressively last longer. She didn’t die always at the same moment. She had an older brother (Maurice), an older sister (Pamela) and two younger brothers (Edward, who they called Teddy, and Jimmy). When Ursula was a child, some of her deaths were connected with the reckless behaviour of her older siblings.
The narration is done in the third person but mainly from Ursula’s point of view. Her outlook on life as a child, how she interpreted what was happening around her, feels authentic. Sometimes a chapter starts mid-way through a specific day and within it there are quick mentions to previous events in some of the characters’ lives which had happened off-page. The characters also allude to people who are not part of the chore family. At those instances the book becomes slightly confusing and less gripping.
Fortunately, when Ursula becomes a teenager, the story turns out to be more cohesive, seeing that each following life lasts longer. The more detailed the story is, the more engrossing it becomes. In certain lives, Ursula had to deal with some hurtful events, which changed her. It is positive that those occurrences are delved into and not just mentioned in passing. The most intimate moments between just a couple of characters are the most compelling. Ursula and Teddy share some of the most heart-warming moments. But her connection with her sister Pamela is also inspiring.
In a way, Ursula is not just one character but many. As she experienced different lives, her characteristics changed. It conveys that, in part, people are the sum of their experiences. Thus, Ursula is difficult to describe as a character. She was perceived by her family as a little odd, which raised her aunt’s Izzie interest in her. Izzie’s way of life contrasted with the one she was used to. She led a far less austere life. As Ursula was growing up, she started feeling something strange close to the moment when she had previously died. Thus, she tried to change the actions that had led to her previous death without even knowing why. It was an urge she couldn’t explain.
Ursula lived various times through the First and the Second World Wars. Since her father, Hugh, enlisted to fight in the First World War, there are mentions of him being away when she was younger. Her observations of the consequences of that war in society, such as former soldiers having to beg on the streets of London, are interesting. The Second World War has an even greater impact on the story, though. Living through it wasn’t easy. There are many poignant descriptions of the destruction caused by the Blitz, not only regarding what the eyes could see, but also about the sounds, smells and the emotional effects it had on people.
“The stink, as usual, was awful. It wasn’t just the smell of coal gas and high explosive, it was the aberrant odour produced when a building was blown to smithereens.”
Life After Life touches on the difficulties faced by women too. They were not supposed to have the same expectations as men when it came to studying and having a career. The idea that women most certainly were guilty of the unwanted attention of men was prevalent. And domestic violence could also destroy lives.
Just as A God in Ruins, the first novel I read by Kate Atkinson, this is not an easy book to get into. However, as soon as I got used to the showcase of Ursula’s many lives, it ended up being a rewarding experience to be presented with various outlooks on society’s norms and what happened in Europe during the period covered. Not all of Ursula’s lives are enthralling. But quite a few are extremely vivid and heart-breaking.