Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown & Company
When I finished the last pages of Kate Atkinson’s new book and current “must-read,” Life After Life, I was on a darkened airplane returning from San Diego. I felt disoriented. Where was I? 2013? 1945? Or perhaps a snowy evening in 1910 where it all begins…and begins again.
Such is the nature of Atkinson’s merry go-round of a plot: this is life as it is or might be or might have been. The idea that existence is more than a singular, linear journey from birth to death is not new. From Eastern religions’ embrace of reincarnation to the parallel universe trope of science fiction, time is distinctly malleable. Even movies such as Groundhog Day and television shows like Flash Forward pose the metaphysical question: If our lives allowed for a do-over, what would we do? In presenting her heroine Ursula the quintessential mulligan, Atkinson taps into the most human of desires—not just to live but also to live the best possible life, one with more options and more opportunities to make smarter choices.
What sets Atkinson apart from other writers is the way in which she directs the story. Other authors skip back and forth between then and now, between the present and some time either in the past or the future. In Atkinson’s book, the various entrances along the timeline take us by surprise (Please avoid at all costs those pesky reviews that detail precisely what happens when) and we follow Ursula down the new path. Atkinson cleverly unspools her narrative, offering up plenty of literary references and perhaps a few discreet hints. Then, under cover of darkness, a recurring motif, she gathers up the various threads and begins to reweave. We learn to trust the author to know where she is and where she needs to go. It’s like listening to an especially ambitious jazz improvisation.
For all the whimsy associated with Atkinson’s unusual plotting, she doesn’t spare her heroine life’s worst pains. Ursula may appear to have an idyllic upbringing in the English countryside, but danger lurks in every shadow and copse. History also has a role to play; Ursula is an Englishwoman living through two world wars and one depression. She couldn’t possibly have it easy.
I eagerly devoured Atkinson’s Case Histories, the first of her books about the detective Jackson Brodie. Not simply another entertaining British mystery novel, Case Histories demonstrates Atkinson’s remarkable ability to juggle several stories, which she then ties together. In Life After Life, she’s elevated this skill to her own special art form.
Why Ursula finds herself starting over is just one of the mysteries waiting to be uncovered in this time-bending saga. One character knowingly suggests, “Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.” Perhaps, but Ursula discovers that even in the gift of a second (and third and fourth) chance, she will run up against certain immoveable truths: Wars will be fought, people will die; evil will abide. The best possible life will not be perfect; it will simply be the best it can be.