This review contains some spoilers, but I have limited them to a section at the end, and I will warn you when to stop reading.
Ursula Todd lives life after life. The first time she’s born, on 11 February 1910, she dies almost immediately, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second time, the family doctor makes it to the house despite the snowstorm, and cuts the cord, saving her. She drowns at age 5, but in her next life a stranger rescues her. Sometimes she dies from the Spanish flu, while in other lives she tries to avoid catching it.
Ursula’s life continues in this fashion, beginning and ending countless times, giving her the chance to change the past and the future. At first, she only holds sway over the quiet life in Fox Corner, her parents’ estate in the English countryside. Then, in those lives when she grows into adulthood, she is thrust into the midst of World War 2, sometimes in London, sometimes in Germany. The question of Ursula’s many lives hangs over the narrative. What is the point of coming back again and again? Must she change history or is she trapped in it? Is she meant to help the people she cares about, or is her purpose political?
The fantasy aspect of this novel is really the only reason I wanted to read it. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, WW2 isn’t really my thing, and early 20th century English family sagas definitely aren’t. That said, Life After Life is a lovely book in more ways than I’d expected. Ursula’s rebirths add the interesting dynamic I’d hoped for, but Kate Atkinson seriously impressed me with her ability to make life in the English countryside compelling, even when you’re reading the third, fourth or fifth version of a scene.
The first thing to charm me was the character Sylvie, Ursula’s mother. She leads us into the story when little Ursula is too young for an intriguing POV, and her husband Hugh is too busy working or fighting in the First World War to give us much insight. Sylvie’s one of those wonderfully multifaceted characters who feel real because they’re a thousand different things in one self. Sylvie can be a good mother, sometimes a bad mother, sometimes caring, often indifferent, frequently snarky. She can be deeply conservative, but at the same time she has lots of rather rebellious thoughts about marriage and parenthood. It’s strongly implied that she’s had an affair, if not several, and it’s possible that some of her children are not her husband’s. She can be funny, cruel, secretive, cold, unexpectedly emotional. There’s a constant sense that there’s a lot about Sylvie we don’t know or understand.
She becomes increasingly stern and unlikeable as the novel progresses, but although I ceased to empathise with her, I still admired the skill and depth with which she was written. Equally intriguing is Hugh’s sister Izzie, who is introduced as a reckless sixteen-year-old who throws her life away by running off to meet her married lover in Paris. And although Izzie is quite reckless and flaky, we come to understand her as a woman who is too smart and headstrong to fit easily into conservative English society, and makes a life for herself instead. In one of the lives where Ursula lives in Germany and meets Hitler, she finds him terribly ordinary and says, amusingly, that “Sylvie would have made short work of him” while “Izzie would have eaten him up and spat him out”.
Izzie and Sylvie stand out, but I liked all the characters you’re supposed to like – Ursula’s kind father Hugh, her practical sister Pamela, her loveable younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy, the maid Bridget. I loathed Ursula’s elder brother Maurice, but he’s so vile that no one in his family likes him either and at one point Ursula suggests that his existence is enough of a reason not to get married.
Ursula herself is not as distinct a character as her mother or her Aunt Izzie, but its fascinating to see her development across her many lives, how the little changes in each life play out. A minor decision might lead to terrible tragedy in one life, but go completely unnoticed in the next. Over the years and lives, Ursula seems to become a bit more cautious or sensible, changes her ideas of what she wants to do with her life, and her approaches to sex and marriage. There’s one very, very dark narrative in which Ursula is sexually assaulted as a teenager and has a horrible life as a result. I was so relieved when she finally died, and in the next life she’s notably assertive.
By the time the narrative gets to WW2, Ursula tends to face it head-on, in Germany or London, sometimes as part of a civilian rescue-crew, but never hiding out at Fox Corner with her mother (although she might consider staying with her mother worse than getting bombed). This part of the story made me miss the quiet English countryside of Ursula’s childhood, but only because it’s so poignantly graphic that I really felt for the characters. At no point does Ursula get the ideal of a happy life – whenever she makes it to adulthood her life tends to be full of tragedy, and even when it’s relatively nice she dies tragically. It can be quite depressing, but I didn’t find ti so dreary that it spoiled the book. Although the pace sometimes lagged, I always had a strong emotional connection to the story without feeling that the author trying to grind my heart into a pulp.
WW2 brings us back to the question of why Ursula keeps being reborn, and this is where I have some problems with the novel. We never learn how the rebirth happens, but that’s ok. What bothers me is that it’s a bit inconsistent. We know that Ursula retains some memories of the past, but do other people? Most of the time it seems clear that they don’t, but there are suggestions that some people do. Also, it’s unclear if Ursula or fate (or some other force) is controlling the rebirth. Sometimes external events allow Ursula to live, like the doctor making it to Fox Corner in time for her birth. At other times, a mysterious force compels her to act in a way that saves her life or even someone else’s life. Then there are times when it seems like her decisions alone change the future, although she doesn’t necessarily understand the significance of those decisions, which might be minor. At one point her life seems to change because she reads a German book instead of a French one, and ends up spending a longer time in Germany than in other lives. So what exactly is going on here? Does Ursula have some kind of superpower that allows her to keep tweaking things until she’s satisfied? Is fate using her to achieve some unknown outcome? Has the universe gotten stuck in a loop with Ursula at the centre?
This brings me to my next problem, which is that it’s never clear what the point of Ursula’s rebirth is. This is where I need to discuss some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the novel I’ll just leave you with this – whatever its flaws (which might include the ambiguous ending) Life After Life is a lovely read. I’m about to go on a bit about some theoretical issues, but none of that changes how much I enjoyed this book.
Still, I think it’s worth adding this, especially since I would have given the book a higher rating if these issues were sorted out. In the opening chapter, a 20-year-old Ursula assassinates Hitler, suggesting that her purpose is to change history, or at least play a significant role in it. In the childhood of one the later lives, she accepts this purpose; she knows that she and her family will suffer during a coming war, she knows that she’s lived through it countless times already, and with this knowledge she devotes her life to killing Hitler before he can do any damage. But as it turns out, killing Hitler is just one possibility. Ursula’s done it before, leading to her death and yet another reincarnation. In the second-last chapter, Ursula doesn’t stop the war but her brother Teddy somehow survives (with fate altering the circumstances, rather than Ursula), which is at least a happy ending. Nevertheless, we end the story with another passage from 11 February 1910. We don’t see Ursula, although we don’t always see Ursula when we go back to her birth, so it’s fair to assume she’s being born again.
I can accept the idea that all this is a failure and Ursula is simply trapped in history, but that she could at least do something for her family, like save Teddy. Or even that she can’t save Teddy, that she has to accept the tragedy of death, including her own. But it just keeps going. And to my mind, the final chapter’s implication that Ursula will be born again makes this the beginning of a horror story.
The narrative always stops and starts with Ursula’s deaths and births, which implies that the world ends and begins with her, as if on a loop. Alternatively, there are many worlds, with a single Ursula hopping constantly across them. If she can control her rebirth, then she’s a megalomaniac who is just going to keep fiddling with the past and the future. If fate controls it, then presumably there’s a purpose, but it’s kept hidden from us. Or the universe could just be broken, somehow. Whatever the case, Ursula will eventually go mad. As her memories pile up, she’ll eventually be unable to distinguish memory from reality. She might end up with a string of lives lived out in mental institutions. She’ll be harassed by constant urges to do what she must to avoid disaster. She’ll be born with memories of being caught up in the bombing of London or Berlin (she already mentions this in one childhood), and of finding dead babies and broken bodies in the rubble. Eventually, she might just be born with full-blown PTSD, and if she can’t control the reincarnation but dies or kills herself in despair, she’ll be born again.
I know that I could just be overthinking this. It might just be an oversight by an author who doesn’t normally write fantasy. It’s certainly more of a historical novel than a fantasy novel, so the focus is not of the mechanisms of the fantasy. Maybe the author meant to imply that the next life will be Ursula’s last because she’s had enough. Or maybe she actually intended the horror story, which I have to admit would also be interesting. Still, I find the ambiguity here too problematic to give the author credit for it. The story seemed to be building up to a brilliant ending, but ended up being baffling instead.