Map of Blue Book Balloon

1 June 2013

Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This book presented me with a dilemma. I couldn't put it down, but didn't want it to end. In the end I had to sit up reading till I'd finished it - and I think I'll have to read it again soon.

Ursula Todd is born, during a snowstorm, in 1910. That much is given. Almost everything else is... provisional, shifty, alternate. In the manner of a video game, Ursula will die and the book will reset to her birth ("Snow"). So we have many versions of Ursula, living through the mid 20th century. We see her as a young girl, as a wife, a mother, an ARP warden in the London Blitz. And we see alternate timelines for her family, friends and lovers. These branch from one another, but the characters and events remain similar and Atkinson uses the cumulative effect of the different realities to tell one story. It's the most quantum physics way of telling a story I've ever seen - the essence is a kind of sum over all the alternates.

To take one very minor example (with no serious spoilers) in a number of the timelines Ursula takes a secretarial course at a college in High Wycombe. The instructor is a somewhat sleazy type, but the details - or at least, what we're told about them - are slightly different in the different alternates You only get a clear picture of him by taking all the versions together. Crucially, Ursula's response is slightly different each time and we only get a complete picture of her by holding all the versions together, as it were.

While Ursula's birth is (almost) the only fixed point, there are other places the timelines converge - where events echo one another - and as you become familiar with the alternates you begin to anticipate these. Examples include the Armistice Day celebrations of 1918, Ursula's 16th birthday, a wartime encounter in the tearoom of the Charing Cross Hotel in London, the bombing of a block of flats in London. The events are recognisably the same, but also very different: each time Atkinson adds viewpoints, changes characters' roles, turns things round, completes her picture.

There is something of a meta-narrative going on. In some of the timelines Ursula becomes increasingly aware of having lived through the same events before. She experiences flashbacks from her alternate lives (or perhaps "flashsideways" since these are in some sense all going on in parallel, and some are of events we haven't seen yet). She begins to anticipate dangers and traps to be avoided. Her attempts to do so ("practice makes perfect") are comic in some places, tragic in others. This builds (in one timeline) to a determination not simply to sidestep immediate dangers to herself and her family, but to intervene and change history on a grander scale. While the resulting "what if?" may be something of a discussion point - and a commercial handle - it isn't actually as much of a central theme as you'd think - this book is much more than just a clever idea, excellently realised (though of course it is that). Rather, Atkinson uses her unconventional approach to tell an involving and compelling story. In particular she has a real skill in conveying character with a few words and in creating sympathetic, real yet flawed individuals (Ursula's parents, Hugh and Sylvie, are one example - at different time we sympathise with both - Sylvie left behind with the children, as banker Hugh marches off to "adventure" in the Great War, Hugh as she becomes prickly during the Second).

To a degree, I think you could read the different sections of this book in any order you want - the epitome, you'd think, of a book written to be consumed by digital means (e-reader, iPad or whatever). However, I read it in hardback and did a lot of paging back and forward in this book, to check details, compare versions of the "same" events, and to work out how the timelines fitted together. I have a nagging feeling that the paper version was easier for this purpose as you're able to keep two or three pages open together. The book comes with a stitched in ribbon bookmark: I think that possibly two or three would be even more helpful.

The only drawback (for me) - and it is a very minor one - of this book was keeping track of all the children. Ursula has a number of siblings and friends and they seem to be rather fecund. At times it can be difficult to remember who is who.

In a postscript, Atkinson suggests that she may write a companion novel, focussing on one of the characters. I really, really hope that she does, as I'd love to be able to read more about the very real world she creates, and the people in it. (She does leave a few tantalising loose ends which would surely be developed?)

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