I had to join a very long waiting list to get this book from the library, having been awaiting it with feverish anticipation even before it came out, so I was thrilled to finally pick up a copy last week. From the advance reviews I read it sounded like a return to Atkinson’s tricksy, elaborate best. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed the Jackson Brodie books but to me they didn’t have the flair of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet. Emotionally Weird was going off the boil rather, so perhaps it’s as well that she left that kind of book for a while to come back to it now.
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
It’s a fabulous conceit – the story of Ursula, a baby born only to die immediately, choked by the umbilical cord. But what if the doctor had got there in time? Rather like Sliding Doors on a grand scale, Ursula lives life after life. In some of them, she dies in childhood, in some she dies in World War II. In others she survives it. And so on. The differences between these lives can hinge on the tiniest things, the slightest hesitation. Some of them are tragic, others are happy, but there’s a thread of sadness running through the whole book, as there often is with Atkinson.
She is also very strong on human relationships so it was never tedious to go back to the beginning and see Ursula and her family develop again. The dynamics of a large family and the class conscious society they live in are fascinating and handled well. The book is 447 pages and I whipped through half of it in one evening, completely gripped and enthralled.
It also left me with a very bad book hangover – I was living far too much in the world Atkinson had conjured up to settle to a new book just yet. I am also still mulling over much of what happened. Questions are running through my head. Ursula always has a strong sense of deja-vu – she knows that something bad is about to happen that must be prevented – and this can get her into trouble. But how has this developed by the later lives? Sometimes she seems to have a plan to change the future, or the past, but does she really know what’s going on and how much control does she have over it? What about the other characters in her family? Do they experience something similar? When Ursula goes back to the beginning, are their lives reset too? What about more tangentially connected figures? Do Ursula’s many lives affect them too?
I was slightly irked by one or two anachronistic phrasings (talk of a “train station” in the first half of the twentieth century, for example) but generally, the period seemed to me to be handled well. I’m no expert, but it gave me a completely new perspective on an era I’ve studied a little, while the sections of the book set in Germany were particularly interesting to me. A couple of other minor quibbles – I’ve never heard a southern British speaker refer to “washing the pots”, and the phrase “Time is out of joint!” seemed rather too Dr Who-like for my taste. The sprinkling of German was generally well done but erred slightly on the side of over-explaining, I thought. “‘Es regnet,’ she said by way of conversation, ‘It’s raining.'” (p. 14) But that’s nit-picking really.
If you want an explanation and everything neatly wrapped up at the end you’ll be disappointed but if you’re looking for an entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking read you can’t beat Atkinson at her best. And to me, she’s on top form here.
- Life After Life: An Interview With Kate Atkinson (omnivoracious.com)