LIFE AFTER LIFE. By Kate Atkinson. Little Brown. 527 pages. $27.99.
11 February 1910. On a wild and snowy night, a baby is born blue with the cord wrapped around her neck. All the world comes down to a single breath, and the baby dies before she has a chance to live.
Turn the page. The date is the same. The same baby arrives, strangled by the cord, but this time the doctor has made it through the snow to save her life.
Kate Atkinson’s new book, “Life After Life,” following four Jackson Brodie mysteries, proceeds with a rocking motion, advancing only so far, then tracking back to the beginning.
Ursula Beresford Todd, the baby born in the snowstorm, lives a series of lives (“life after life”), the longest lasting until 1967. For her, time is reversible. All choices are retractable. In other hands, the premise of the novel might seem like mere gimmickry. Not so with Atkinson. Half the fun of “Life After Life” is in watching her imagination run its zany circuit.
In each life, Atkinson convenes the same basic parts: Ursula is always born in 1910 and always enjoys an Edwardian childhood at Fox Corner, her family’s country estate. She’s a dreamy, loving girl, sometimes described as the “odd one out.”
Her sister, Pammy, is tender and practical. Brother Maurice is a brutal boy, more or less. Teddy is all heart, the family favorite. Jimmy is the Armistice baby. His birth makes Ursula feel that she’s being “pushed further away from the heart of the family, like an object at the edge of an overcrowded table.”
Ursula goes through six lives before surviving childhood in her seventh. So many ways to die: stillbirth (first), drowning (second), falling off the roof (third) and Spanish flu (fourth, fifth, sixth). After her run of flu deaths, Ursula tinkers with history. In previous lives, the maid Bridget brings influenza back from Armistice Day celebrations in London. In her seventh incarnation, Ursula pushes Bridget down the stairs to intercept her fate.
Atkinson’s novel stages, as you’d expect, a version of the fate/freewill debate, but its philosophical underpinnings aren’t systematic. Is Ursula advancing teleologically toward some ultimate fate, the very pattern that her life was meant to take? Dr. Kellet, the psychiatrist who’s brought in when she pushes Bridget, tells her about Nietzsche’s “amor fati,” which he translates as “acceptance of fate.” Should she just accept her fate and enjoy the ride? Or is each life taking its shape incrementally, minute by minute and choice by choice?
Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is fond of reminding her, “Practice makes perfect.” Even Teddy weighs in: “What if you had the chance to do it again and again until you got it right? Would you do it?”
There’s no question that Ursula gets it more right in some lives than others. The novel’s parallel timelines suggest that almost anything might happen to anyone, along a continuum of experiences. Think how far removed from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction”: “What is character but the definition of incident. What is incident but the illumination of character.”
Realistic works imagine an ordinary human as the center of the universe. Postmodern works like “Life After Life” smash the idea of an orderly self in an orderly world. The Ursula Todd who would die for Fox Corner, “for meadow and copse and the stream that ran through the bluebell wood,” finds herself in another life marrying a German, befriending Eva Braun and dining with Hitler. She’ll get this one right later, but the whole novel contests the idea of a unified life and a personal fate.
The century’s big events drive Atkinson’s narrative, with Ursula as witness in one incarnation after another.
The book’s most harrowing sequences are its most stoically British, page after page of unforgettable writing, set during the Blitz.
Everything is immediate in these home front scenes: the flash and fire, the blown limbs, the strange limbo of life in war. Reading them, it’s hard to imagine that Ursula could be anyone other than “Ursula Beresford Todd, stalwart to the last,” the line she chooses for her headstone.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.