By Harvey Freedenberg
When I was a teenager, I recall enjoying a book entitled If the South Had Won the Civil War. In it, the author imagined how American history would have unfolded had the war ended with a Confederate victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, followed by a Union capitulation. That was my introduction to the genre of alternative history, one most recently pursued by Jeff Greenfield in his books Then Everything Changed and If Kennedy Lived.
Kate Atkinson’s engrossing new novel, Life After Life, her eighth, shares a sensibility with those books, but instead of focusing most of its attention on world-changing events unfolding in some alternate historical universe, she gives us a character, Ursula Beresford Todd, who dies and is reborn multiple times. While at first we’re transfixed with the circumstances that will bring about Ursula’s demise and how Atkinson will resurrect her in a narrative structure that becomes more intricate as the novel proceeds, what makes this story more than the execution of a recurring literary device is how close to our existence this theme cuts. Though none of us has experienced death and rebirth (at least in the physical sense), we all can imagine how our lives would have been different had we left the house five minutes earlier or later on the day of a massive traffic accident or had stayed home instead of attending the party where we met the person who would become our spouse. We all live with an acute sense of life’s contingencies, and it’s to that universal sense that Atkinson appeals.
Ursula enters the world and first leaves it on a snowy night in February 1910, at her family’s comfortable estate in rural England. Soon, we watch as she drowns and is rescued, succumbs to the flu in the pandemic of 1918 and then survives, is raped and undergoes an illegal abortion as a teenager and then avoids that horrific fate and engages in a dizzying succession of affairs and marriages.
These events don’t leave her unscarred. She “often felt confused between what was real and what was not,” Atkinson writes. By age 10, she’s seeing a London psychiatrist who introduces her to the concept of Buddhist reincarnation but then offers the more mundane explanation that “perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory has a little flaw, a neurological problem that leads you to think that you are repeating experiences. As if something had got stuck.” Still, Ursula can’t shake her “obscure memories of elation, of falling into darkness,” that “belonged to that world of shadows and dreams that was ever present and yet almost impossible to pin down.”
While Ursula’s often-disconcerting trip through life is at the heart of this story, history is never far away. The novel opens with a brief scene in November 1930, as Ursula enters a Munich café, willing to sacrifice her life to assassinate Hitler. In another of her incarnations, she befriends Eva Braun and spends time at the Berghof, Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Alps, “struck by how ordinary (even silly) he was, more Mickey Mouse than Siegfried.” Some of the strongest sections of the novel are Atkinson’s account of 1940 London at the height of the Blitz and of Berlin in the dying days of World War II. There are terrifying scenes of the devastation wreaked by German bombs, as Ursula, in her role as an air raid warden, attempts to rescue victims each night, witnessing daily how “people lived (and died) in the most unlikely of circumstances.” Experiencing life as the widow of a German officer in Berlin, surrounded by the “black skeletal remains of a proud and beautiful city,” she struggles vainly to keep herself and her young daughter alive amid destruction and starvation.
Atkinson offers a lavish portrait of England in the period spanning the world wars of the 20th century, contrasting the almost giddy anticipation that energized the country in 1914 with the war weariness that prevailed on the eve of World War II, a mere 25 years later. Her focus here is on the lives of Ursula and her family at the country home they call Fox Corner, and she provides a richly detailed portrayal of the culture and values of the British upper middle class in that era, helping us sense the end of a genteel, if insular, world.
With Life After Life, Kate Atkinson has struck a nearly ideal balance between the kind of story that’s a great pleasure simply to sink into and one that raises philosophical and moral questions in an accessible, yet deeply serious, way. When Downton Abbey has run its course, it’s easy to picture this entertaining, yet provocative, story taking its place.