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.
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.
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.