Only an author the calibre of Kate Atkinson could pull off a novel like Life After Life. At its simplest, it the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1910, the middle child in a middle class family living in the country just north of London. She enjoys an idyllic childhood full of love and healthy outdoor pursuits, though her father goes off to fight in the trenches. Later it will be the Second World War that will define a chunk of her adulthood.
Any further description of the plot is difficult because the story rewinds itself, killing off its main character, to let Ursula have another go at events and making alternative choices. Her first death occurs just as she is born, a freezing cold night in February, when snow prevents the arrival of a doctor. Another version of her life is curtailed when she drowns at the age of four, not so surprising as her mother Sylvie is a fairly self-absorbed woman who is often not aware of what her children are up to. The seaside holiday was always going to hold potential for disaster.
And while the armistice in 1918 was met with great celebration, another potential threat lurked in the form of the Spanish influenza outbreak. All kinds of dangers beset Ursula as the story goes along – wicked men, intent on having their way with a pretty teenage Ursula, and even a serial killer. As an adult living in London, there’s the blitz to contend with.
The reader soon spots the danger signs which charge the plot with plenty of tension. Ursula will succumb to death numerous times only to start off all over again, but with an increasing awareness that gives her a kind of second sight, which her parents find disturbing. She even takes a shot at Hitler.
The constant repetitions of Ursula’s childhood and early adulthood could get a bit monotonous and even irritating, were it not for the wonderful characters of Ursula, her family and friends. You can never tire of the family scenes at Fox Corner where Ursula lives with her arrogant little squirt of a brother Maurice, her self-possessed sister Pamela and her adored little brother Teddy. Sylvie has a waspish tongue and a rather wicked eye for the cook’s son, George. The Irish maid, Bridget, has an amusingly forthright manner and an interesting love life. The realism shown in scenes of the Blitz is both poignant and disturbing.
Running in the background are ideas about how we write stories, the weaving of narrative threads and the idea that if you could go back and relive your life, what would you do differently. It all adds up to an immensely satisfying read. I had been a bit miffed when I discovered that Atkinson's latest book wouldn’t be another Jackson Brodie mystery novel, and put off reading it. Now I see I have only delayed a wonderful treat.