Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

by
‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’

‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’

‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

While that quote comes from late in the novel, it is a concise summary of the approach to time that is the most distinctive feature of author Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. She occasionally shortens it to deja vu or even references reincarnation but the notion of a palimpsest offering a number of overlaid potential images — of past, present and future — is the most useful, particularly since as the book proceeds (in normal chronology, it must be said) the author stops at each stage to peel back the palimpsest and offer a version of each alternative.

To that idea of time, I’d additionally offer a KfC-adjusted platitude by way of summarizing how the narrative is developed: Two steps forward (ending in death). One step back. Restart with three steps forward (death averted).

Let’s illustrate that with the three versions of the birth of Ursula Todd, the character who lives “life after life” in the novel.

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

That’s version one. The author takes a step back and moves on with version two. Sylvie Todd is giving birth, assisted only by Bridget, the 14-year-old scullery maid, since a winter snow storm has prevented Dr. Fellowes from reaching Fox Corner, the Todd’s country house.

‘Oh, ma’am,’ Bridget cried suddenly, ‘she’s all blue, so she is.’

‘A girl?’

‘The cord’s wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She’s been strangled, the poor wee thing.’

And, finally, version three — Dr Fellowes has successfully fought his way through the storm:

‘She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally.’ Dr Fellowes held up his surgical scissors for Sylvie’s admiration. They were small and neat and their sharp points curved upwards at the end. ‘Snip, snip,’ he said. Sylvie made a mental note, a small, vague one, given her exhaustion and the circumstances of it, to buy just such a pair of scissors, in case of similar emergency. (Unlikely it was true.) Or a knife, a good sharp knife to be carried on one’s person at all times, like the robber-girl in The Snow Queen.

Only a few pages into the novel and already the heroine has died twice — give Atkinson full marks for audacity, if nothing else, and move on with version three as the new starting point. Ursula makes it to her fifth summer “without further mishap” and the Todd family is on holiday in Cornwall. She and her sister Pamela play at jumping the waves, until a huge wave crests over them and they get caught in the undertow. Ursula feels herself “being pulled under, deeper and deeper”, unable to touch bottom, thrashing around waiting for someone to come.

No one came. And there was only water. Water and more water. Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky.

Darkness fell.

Take a step back and start again. The two go wave-jumping and get caught in the undertow, observed by a painter who is including them in the water colour landscape he is working on.

Sylvie was startled to look up from her book and see a man, a stranger, walking towards her along the sand with one of her girls tucked under each arm, as if he was carrying geese or chickens. The girls were sopping wet and tearful. ‘Went out a bit too far,’ the man said. ‘But they’ll be fine.’

They treated their rescuer, a Mr Winton, a clerk (‘senior’) to tea and cakes in a hotel that overlooked the sea. ‘It’s the least I can do,’ Sylvie said. ‘You have ruined your boots.’

‘It was nothing,’ Mr Winton said modestly.

‘Oh, no, it was most definitely something‘, Sylvie said.

I’ve included a lot of quotes to illustrate that point about the palimpsest-like nature of time — and the re-starting of the narrative thread — because author Atkinson never abandons the device in the novel (indeed, the title itself is the most concise summary possible of the pervading theme of the volume). From the advance publicity and early reviews, I was certainly aware of it before I started the book and will admit that it raised a significant level of trepidation — all too often that is the kind of gimmick to which I don’t respond well at all.

And, indeed, in the first section of the book my unease did not disappear. Slowly but surely, however, I came to the realization that it was no gimmick — while it may have seemed repetitive in those early incidents (note the way the author repeats phrases), Atkinson needs to get her reader accustomed to that warped notion of time and action before she starts showing just how powerful a force it can be when she gets to the serious story threads (perhaps “options” is a better term) of her novel.

Ursula’s birth occurs in 1910 and the timeline for the novel extends into the 1960s which means it includes both the Great War and World War II. Her first exposure to the looming WWII comes during her “grand” tour of Europe as a young adult in the mid-1930s (not so “grand” — she spends time as a language tutor in Munich, Bologna and Nancy rather than Berlin, Florence and Paris) and experiences the rise of Nazism. She will spend the war years in London working for the War Office and serving as a warden during the Blitz — for Atkinson to adequately portray the “options” for Ursula’s life (or deaths) in those years, she needs a reader who is familiar with her device of the potential end of her character, the step back and the resumption of a story line in which she survives.

(I am giving those latter sections somewhat short shrift by emphasizing the war experience. By that time, the book has a completely developed cast of characters (not the least of which is Ursula’s family, a dashing aunt, close women friends, an assortment of lovers, fellow sufferers of the Blitz, Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler — yes, those last two do feature in Ursula’s story), all of whom also experience these alternative versions of what happens. Ursula’s favorite dessert during her German experiences is Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte and it is an apt culinary metaphor for the many distinct literary flavors that the author delivers to the reader.)

I am comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty in novels — actually, I love it — and once I became attuned to the rhthym of Atkinson’s device Life after Life was a genuine treat. Each stage explores a number of options about “what might have been”; while the author needs to choose one for her story to continue, that doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t pause to consider what it might mean if one of the alternatives was, in fact, the end.

I can predict comfortably that Life after Life will be a book club favorite since those ambiguities are the kind of things beloved of in book club discussions (my Canadian review copy has a Chatelaine Book Club sticker attached). It is early in the prize season but the novel already is starting to receive attention from more “literary” sources — this week it made the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly Orange Prize) and Booker watchers are touting it as a possible longlist contender.

However it fares on those two fronts, I’d just say it is a damn fine read.

12 Responses to “Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: glad to hear that you liked this. I am around 100 pages into the novel and enjoying it very much so far.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I still had some reservations 100 pages in — after that, I found it steadily got better. It isn’t perfect, but I was more than willing to overlook that shortcomings that I did find.

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  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. It sounds like a novel featuring the concept of quantum immortality as its core concept, which is unusual. Quantum immortality is a theory that arose out of the many worlds hypothesis- that our universe is but one of an infinite number of potential universes. Should that be so, all versions of us must necessarily exist, thus meaning that any death we may face is somewhere averted/avoided (and any death we avoid is somewhere met).

    It’s not been addressed much in SF because it’s hard to pull off in an interesting way, it ends to be mostly addressed in short stories that explore the idea. This is the first literary treatment I’m aware of, barring perhaps Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia, which ultimately has somwehat different concerns.

    It does sound though that she dies an awful lot, perhaps more than is entirely credible, then again I suppose logically there are always versions of her dying so it’s inevitable. Is she aware of her situation? Is it unique, or merely an example of how the universe functions within the fiction?

    Interesting that it’s somehow avoided being marketed as SF. I suspect that will mean better critical attention, but far fewer sales.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You have given me a chance to quote an epigraph to the novel that I wanted to include in the review but thought would be overkill. It comes from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

      What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’

      For the most part, I’d say the author comes down on the latter side of Nietzsche’s options — mind you, she needs to do that to keep the novel going. At the risk of being trite, this is more about “do overs” than parallel worlds.

      I think it would have been wrong to set the market up for SF — this is more about alternate futures that might have resulted if different choices had been made or circumstances altered.

      Ursula does die quite often early in the book (although it is not quite as pervasive as my review suggests — sorry about that) which is why my unease continued. However, once Atkinson has got the reader trained in the device (the early examples are sort of like literary “bunny hills” to teach the technique) the episodes get longer and more complex and the alternative potential results start to overlap. I quite liked that because the structure became almost three dimensional when you considered the various possibilities.

      A final note on the market positioning. Atkinson’s last four novels were detective stories featuring Jackson Brodie and were very well received (BBC Scotland has done wonderful tv versions under the title Case Histories if you are looking for some good film some evening — I’ve seen them but haven’t read any of the books). I suspect the publisher is hoping to attract some of that market — there is an element of literary “detective” work in the story.

      Finally, she is somewhat aware of her “specialness” — it comes in the sense of deja vu, a familiarity of having already experienced a situation (“memories are sometimes in the future”).

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      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Oddly enough I just commented earlier today on another review of this, where I used the phrase “do over” so I guess I picked that up from you. Is it implied this is her unique talent? I suppose that may not be answered, given even with awareness of her situation she’d have no way of knowing if it happened to others if they didn’t have a similar awareness.

        Perhaps I’m overthinking it. One issue of having grown up with SF is that when one encounters this sort of high concept fiction there’s a tendency to wonder at the mechanics of how the concept functions within the fiction, i.e. by what mechanism does all this occur? That may of course not be a relevant question, though there is part of me would then ask if we’re in the territory of entertainment (which I suspect we are) or if the book is trying to speak to the world and if the latter how it can do so given a central conceit which departs so radically from the world we actually inhabit (which is sadly do over free).

        The training wheels analogy is a nice one, it gets across how the book is structured very effectively I suspect.

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        It isn’t so much a talent as a general circumstance. One reason the book got more interesting later on (during the Blitz sections in particular) is that other people, not Ursula, are the ones who die. And, again during the Blitz sections, the book arrives at the fatal explosion from quite different story lines in the various versions (that’s why being comfortable with the technique is necessary). Another thing that Atkinson does very effectively is to underline the palimpsest effect with reminders that we are omniscient observers whatever version we might be reading (note the parenthetical observations in a couple of the quotes) and that there is a real time element outside of the narrative itself.

        You are probably overthinking a bit, although that is a response to the way I chose to frame the review. Atkinson is more interested in using the palimpsest time device as a tool rather than exploring the phenomenon itself. She seems more interested in exploring how a very minor adjustment (i.e. a painter sketching the scene in Cornwall) could have yielded a much more dramatically different result.

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        • Max Cairnduff Says:

          You’ve certainly caught my interest with it Kevin. The underlying question, the randomness of our lives and how small changes could have vast effects, is an interesting one. It also sounds structurally accomplished, which is important since otherwise I imagine it would be rather annoying.

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  3. anokatony Says:

    I soon will be reading the ‘Groundhog Day’ novel, even though it is 500+ pages.. Loved that movie.

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  4. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    It sounds like it has to be at least 500 pages with all that dying and starting over again. Thanks, Kevin, for an excellent review. This book is now on my shortlist (before I’ve even read it!) for my Literary Masters book groups for next season. And I plan to check out the BBC Case Histories also, so thanks for that tip.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is 480 pages in the Doubleday Canada version that I read, but don’t let that scare you. The chapters are short and most (particularly in the first half) are separated by about three blank pages with a title page for the next section. As the novel gets more complex, the sections do get longer. In conventional type, I’d say it is the equivalent of just over 300 pages.

      I can’t tell you how much Mrs. KfC and I enjoyed the first Case Histories, which covers the first three Jackson Brodie novels — we can’t wait for year two which is only the final novel, but comes in three 90-minute parts (it has been broadcast but no sign of a DVD yet). Alas, you do need an all-region DVD player but if you are patient I can’t believe that PBS won’t be picking it up next year. (On that same note, if you haven’t been attracted to Bletchley Circle on PBS yet, do give it a go — it is very much a “book person’s” tv mini-series.)

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  5. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    I will check both of them out–thanks so much. It will be something to watch as I wait for Season 2 of House of Cards (the one with Kevin Spacey).🙂

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