“Ursula’s life begins, ends, rewinds, begins again – and again – in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Would she ever get it right?
Atkinson’s use of rewriting the same chapters cleverly demonstrates that road not travelled. Each time Ursula dies, the story rewinds to the alternative possibility. If the cord had not strangled her at birth, if she had not reached for her doll and fallen off the roof, if she had not drowned in the ocean, or died young from the flu – Atkinson notes: “Such a fine line between living and dying…”
As the story progresses, and Ursula grows into her sixteenth birthday, another milestone, the difference between being kissed, by whom, and how, changes her future. When she decides to leave her bucolic home as a young British woman venturing into the world, the choices seem inconsequential but they are not. Atkinson writes Ursula into several possible lives – after she forgoes university to attend secretarial school – or graduates and spends a year abroad. Even her study major makes a difference.
As Ursula matures, she begins to recognize the signs of a former life, sometimes to the point of trying to control the outcome. When Bridget, the maid and carrier of the deadly flu, returns again and again, ending Ursula’s new lives, Ursula decides to take care of matters herself by pushing Bridget down the stairs. Her parents, taking a dim view of her déjà vu, sign her up for a psychiatrist.
When the book opens, Ursula has just shot Hitler. Eventually, her life rewinds back to this scene, but not before Atkinson has filled the pages with scenes of war from all perspectives and from both sides of the Channel. Ursula’s roles in different lives range from British air raid warden to Eva Braun’s confidante at Hitler’s retreat in Berghof. Descriptions of the Blitz carry the central focus of the novel and take you not only to the underground holes and devastating terror, but also to the lives of those trying to survive.
As I became invested in Ursula, the story became interactive. I worried over her, knowing that the murderer was around the bend, or that the wall would fall on her – wanting to shout to her to stop. When all seemed lost, I knew Atkinson would soon rewind and all would be well again in another chance – wouldn’t it?
Eventually, Ursula realizes her retakes in life carry a purpose. She decides to focus and use her decisions to get her there – until eventually she does loop back to the opening chapter and change the world. But Atkinson does not end the book there; she keeps rewinding…
“Don’t you wonder if just one small thing had been changed in the past…surely things would be different.”
What if one small thing had been changed in your life – in your decisions – makes you wonder….
My reading of the book reflected its theme: I started reading the first few pages; Ursula died. I stopped, packed, saved her for my long plane ride. Ursula lived again, and died again as an infant. When Ursula finally progressed to her fifth birthday; my Kindle battery died. Travel in Spain distracted me and I did not return to the book – until a friend gave me a paperback copy of Atkinson’s first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum – and I remembered. What would have happened if I had never finally read the book? Like Ursula, I would have missed the most important part and an amazing adventure.