It was suggested to Kate Atkinson, that the above might be a more apt title for her book, as the lives relived by the protagonist Ursula in Life After Life are many. In this book, the author has written something unlike anything that precedes it, a return perhaps to the kind of books she was writing before she started on her crime series featuring the fictional detective Jackson Brodie.
Life After Life presents numerous versions of Ursula’s life story, a life whose course sometimes changes when her response to an event or an encounter is different to how she responded previously. It is not a conscious change, although she does possess a sense of déjà vu at times, however she is more propelled by instinct than any knowledge of having already lived, or perhaps she is responding to the ever strengthening morphic fields (see link below), that ability to tap into our own and the collective consciousness of remembered events, that link across time between the past and the present, which inevitably become stronger in someone who keeps returning, preparing them for future events.
The story begins (or does it end?) in 1930 before going back to her birth in February 1910. Her earliest lives pass quickly, birth at that time being as traumatic as, if not more difficult to survive than war. When the doctor can make it through the snowstorm and unwrap the umbilical cord from around her neck, she will have a better chance of surviving.
Ursula’s story for its many stops when darkness falls and restarts, takes place predominantly between 1910 and 1941 in England and Germany, with much of the narration taking place during the war, in particular the 57 consecutive nights of bombardment in London from September 1940, “the blitz”, when more than one million homes were destroyed and over 40,000 civilians killed with many more injured.
There are significant turning points in her adolescence connected with the lecherous friend of her brother and a passing stranger with insidious intent, otherwise she makes it to an independent life in London during the second world war in scenes that Atkinson brings alive in unimaginable ways, a city where nowhere is safe from the nightly bombs that will fall, their paths of destruction unpredictable, those who survive, forever changed by that traumatic experience.
In the same way that one never knows which choices will lead to life and which to certain death as bombs rain down on London, so too as readers, do we turn each page with similar trepidation, never quite sure when darkness may fall again and our story begin over. Unpredictable, because subsequent experiences don’t necessarily guarantee a longer life, Life After Life has a simple structure, yet leaves the reader aware of the countless possibilities that could manifest.
The BBC interviewer asked a question I had been pondering, suggesting that for a writer, there are numerous outcomes possible when plotting a story and in a sense this book is like stringing together several drafts, however Atkinson says that although you could consider it like that, it is not her method to write like that, it seems that she set out with this structure in mind, that she always knew how it was going to end, although I am unsure whether this story can ever end, you can see how it might go on forever.
The appeal of the story for me is intricately tied to that structure and in fact I find it hard to think only about the story itself, which begs the question, which version of the story is the story? This is not a typical tale of transformation of a protagonist, while we recognise Ursula’s character in the many lives she lives, the story shows just how different our lives could become, based on even insignificant choices we make as well as the random events that can interrupt that path and change its course indelibly.
Life After Life is also a turning point for Kate Atkinson who says she won’t be writing another Jackson Brodie novel for a very long time, having felt some relief at being set free from the intricate plotting involved in crime writing and enjoyed getting back to just writing. She mentioned two possibilities for her next novel, either a companion novel to this one about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, called A God in Ruins, or an homage to Agatha Christie, about a group of people stranded in a countryside hotel in a snowstorm during a murder mystery weekend called Death at the Side of the Rook.
It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.
So let’s see how the judges of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 respond, this title having just made the long list.
Morphic Fields & Morphic Resonance – Rupert Sheldrake interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun Literature Magazine Feb 2013
Interview – Meet the Author – Nick Higham of the BBC speaks to Kate Atkinson.
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.