Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Kate Atkinson, _Life after Life_

THIS WAS OUR June selection in the book club. Atkinson is a best-selling novelist who also gets shortlisted for prestigious prizes (the Women's Prize for Fiction, in this novel's case), so she seemed worth a shot.

Atkinson is swift and skillful in establishing her premise without any clumsy exposition--the premise being that, as in Groundhog Day or Run, Lola, Run, her protagonist gets do-overs, though not for a particular day or a particular episode, but rather for her whole life. It's not quite like classic reincarnation into a series of lives, though, as she keeps starting over on the same day, 11 February 1910, always as the third child, second daughter of an upper-middle-class English family.

Ursula Todd dies within minutes in her first go (cord wrap), but in successive attempts keeps managing to live a little longer. It takes her three attempts to get past the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918-19, but she eventually does.

Ursula's internalizations of the lessons she is learning in order to live a little longer seem unconscious at first, just impulses. For example, she has an urge, origin unknown, to push a maid down some stairs, and this accident prevents the maid from going up to London for the November 1918 victory celebrations, thus she does not bring the flu back to the house.

As her attempted lives accumulate, though, Ursula begins to get more precise ideas of the best way to use her years, and so arrives at the plan of living her life so as to be in a position to assassinate Hitler before his becoming German Chancellor in 1933, thus preventing World War II.

The assassination attempt occurs in the very first chapter, before we know anything of the premise of the novel, posing a puzzle for the reader. How are we going to get to this scene when Ursula keeps dying various ways without ever getting to Germany? Well, we do get there, and so we have a repeat of the assassination near the very end of the book...except the two accounts of the assassination attempt have different dates, one month apart. So she must have tried at least twice. Did she kill Hitler either time?  Did killing him prevent the war, or not?

Actually, we never find out. I found that a little frustrating. Nor does Atkinson make any attempt to explain whether the lives all co-exist in some sort of multi-verse way, or one of the lives becomes the keeper. (Perhaps it's just as well left unexplained, as it is hard to imagine what a satisfying explanation would sound like.) In at least one of the lives, Ursula's beloved younger brother survives the war, at least, which is gratifying. We also get an intriguing hint that other members of her family can do the same do-over trick.

But what I particularly liked about the novel was the theme that our choices make a difference. Even though we do not get mulligans on our lives, we do get choices, and the idea that it behooves us to take them seriously lends some gravity to the book's premise.

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