This novel by Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel Award in 2013. Her novel, A God in Ruins,which I greatly admired, also won the Costa. I wasn’t quite as taken by her third World War II novel, Transcription, but I was fascinated by the blurb on the back cover of Life after Life: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?”
The novel begins in 1910 with the birth of Ursula Todd into an upper class English family in the London suburbs. There is a heavy snowstorm at the time and the doctor is unable to reach the house. The chord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, and unfortunately, she died. But there is another version where a 14 year-old maid recognises the problem, cuts the chord and the baby survives. And there is another version in which the doctor arrives in time. Similarly, when Ursula is a toddler at the beach with her older sister, they wade out into the sea and they are struck by a huge wave. Ursula drowns. No, she is saved by an elderly artist on the beach. Then, there is the time when she is taken advantage of as a teenager by the American friend of her brother and becomes pregnant. Or is she? No, she bats him away.
The story continues to the run up to the war. Ursula visits a family in Munich where she meets Eva Braun and her older lover, Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s family includes some remarkable and memorable characters, like her aunt, Izzie, who is a loose cannon socially, financially and romantically. Then there is Teddy the much-loved younger brother who becomes a bomber pilot and is killed in the war. Or no, he was shot down, parachuted, spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp, and finally made his way home.
Ms Atkinson’s descriptions of the London blitz of 1940 when Ursula worked as an area warden are astonishingly authentic, the settings devastating and the characters memorable. There are so many twists and turns in Ursula’s life, that one can’t be away from the story for very long.
There is a passage which occurs at the beginning and the end of the book in which Ursula assassinates Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with a family handgun which she takes from her purse. She, in turn is killed in both versions, yet she lives to work into the 1950’s. Perhaps this is just her imagination of how the war may not have been.
For me, the idea of living one’s life again until one get’s it right is misleading and doesn’t actually happen in the book. Rather, it is a question of slightly different circumstances and reactions of the characters which make for a different result. So, the point for me is how a small bit of fortune – or misfortune – can dramatically change one’s life.