Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction this year and I had been on the library waiting list for it for several months. I'll try, but be aware that this will probably give stuff away about the events of the book, though I think that the premise, that the main character keep dying and starting again, lets you know it's not going to be a straightforward run through someone's life (and actually in the opening scene she shoots Hitler, which gave me all sorts of misleading ideas about the plot).
I wonder if it is true that everyone would love a second chance at life, to get right whatever they felt they had done wrong, to change their own history, even if only a little. Sometimes I am not so sure. Ursula seems to get just that, and not just a second chance but chance after chance, for a life after life; each time the darkness falls she finds herself back at the beginning. To begin with it seems to be the vagaries of fate that govern her goings and re-comings; several childhood accidents and three bouts of the flu however see Ursula beginning to get some inkling that her experience is less than ordinary (what, after all, would be the point of a redo if you weren't aware that you could change things). She begins to have weird premonitions of doom that lead her to take some pretty drastic measures to save herself (and little brother Teddy) from the 1918 epidemic. It is almost as if she is old and wise before her time; she finds herself knowing things she shouldn't and experiences it as a kind of déjà vu. Once she has weathered the storms of early childhood life settles down somewhat and trundles on through the teenage years and into the twenties. Her life takes a variety of routes through World War Two, on one occasion she is married to a German and in others battling air raids on the home front. Maybe it is just a game that every writer likes to play; do you believe in destiny, are things meant to happen a certain way, what if I make my character do this, what if they do that, how might things work out if they had stood up to their mother or simply walked home from the station at a different time. It is a nice balance of her life sometimes being driven by external forces, the accidents for example, or then the war, but at other times it is her own conscious deliberate choices that govern events.
This quote gives a nice flavour of the inter-war years and the slightly chatty style the book takes on sometimes, and yet also hinting at the peculiarities of Ursula's life:
" 'Sweet Sixteen,' Hugh said, kissing her affectionately. 'Happy birthday, little bear. You future's all ahead of you.' Ursula still harboured the feeling that some of her future was also behind her but she had learned not to voice such things. They had gone up to London for afternoon tea at The Berkeley (it was half term), but Pamela had recently twisted her ankle in a hockey match and Sylvie was recovering from an attack of pleurisy that had seen her spend a night in the cottage hospital ('I suspect I have my mother's lungs,' a remark that Teddy found funny every time he thought about it.) And Jimmy was only just over a bout of the tonsillitis he was prone to. 'Going down like flies,' Mrs Glover said, beating butter into sugar for the cake. 'Who's next, I wonder?' " (p.175)
I liked this brief exposition of Sylvie (Ursula's mother); having come across as slightly avant-garde to begin with, breastfeeding her babies and not having a nanny, she becomes gradually more conservative in the face of her daughter who fails to have the correct womanly aspirations:
"Maurice turned up on a Saturday morning, this time with only Howie in tow and no sign of Gilbert, who had been sent down for 'an indiscretion'. When Pamela asked, 'What indiscretion?' Sylvie said that it was the definition of an indiscretion that you didn't speak of it afterwards." (p.184)
Ursula swiftly becomes the victim of an indiscretion which takes her down a particularly unpleasant path and I found myself feeling quite relieved when the darkness fell. It was an interesting example of how small circumstances can contrive to shape everything about the future, and also about the social pressures of the period.
Big chunks of the book concern World War Two, an era that Atkinson writes about beautifully, the whole atmosphere and sense that life was short and cheap, death becoming a routine part of their daily existence, it almost seems to highlight the fact of Ursula's continued survival.
A couple of lovely touches, to sum up the petty privations:
"She ate the egg while reading a copy of yesterday's Times, given to her by Mr Hobb in the post room when he had finished with it, a little daily ritual they had acquired. The paper's newly shrunk dimensions made it seem ridiculous somehow, as if the news itself was less important. Although really it was wasn't it?" (p.139)
" 'And, oh, I don't know,' Miss Woolf said quietly to her as she made tea, 'it's just the general sense of dirtiness, as if one will never be clean again, as if poor old London will never be clean again. Everything is so awfully shabby, you know?' " (p.386)
But the focus of the story is her family and their home at Fox Corner, and it is thoughts of that and her quite idyllic childhood that she comes back to at times of need:
"Stroking her damp hair, she talked in a low voice to her about another world. She told her about the bluebells in spring in the woods near Fox Corner, about the flowers that grew in the meadow beyond the copse - flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies. She told her about the smell of new-mown grass from an English summer lawn, the scent of Sylvie's roses, the sour-sweet taste of the apples in the orchard. She talked of the oak trees in the lane, and the yews in the graveyard and the beech in the garden at Fox Corner. She talked about the foxes, the rabbits, the pheasants, the hares, the cows and the big plough horses. About the sun beaming his friendly rays on the fields of corn and fields of green. the bright song of the blackbird, the lyrical lark and the soft coo of the wood pigeons, the hoot of the owl in the dark. 'Take this,' she said, putting the pill in Frieda's mouth, 'I got it from the chemist, it will help you sleep.' " (p.347)
So, as I mentioned, the book opens with her shooting Hitler, and at another point in the book she finds herself living with Eva at the Berghof, so you are given the impression that there is some kind of 'higher purpose' to Ursula's situation. In a way it reminded me of 11/22/63 where Jake goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, so I was waiting for events to take a more dramatic turn. Does Ursula have a purpose to her re-lived life, something that she is supposed to do? Well, you'll have to read and find out.