I finished this book a few weeks ago and I’ve been musing the best method of reviewing this literary, historical, magical realism-laden book of wondrous awesomeness.
Obviously, I like this book with a crazed fangirl fervor.
I cannot wrap my head around writing a “spoiler-free” review. If you like reading a book as a doe-eyed book-virgin then do not read past this paragraph. Let me assure you that I could run down a list of births, deaths, relationships, and even tell you the magical realism element of this book and it wouldn’t do a ding-dang thing to spoil this book. This book is virtually unspoilable.
Why unspoilable? Well the plot of Life After Life is certainly a driving force of the novel. I was continually anxious for the heroine, Ursula Todd, and I wanted to see how she survived all the harrowing situations she found herself in, but this book is about so much more. Life After Life is about the consequence and triviality of human decisions and the fruitlessness of anxiety.
Now that I’ve given the spoiler-opposed a chance to flee I can give some plot background. From Goodreads:
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual.
For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.
Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.
I’m going rogue and telling you that I only agree with the first and last paragraph of that Goodreads synopsis (more on that later).
Ursula dies and is reborn in a number of ways: complications at birth, suffocation from the cat, drowning, falling off the roof, the Spanish flu, an infection from an illegal abortion, murder at the hands of an abusive spouse, several times from a bombing, suicide, shooting, and from old age after a long and fruitful life. After each death she is reborn, but not in the traditional sense of reincarnation. Ursula is continually born into the same family on the same snowy night. While she doesn’t fully remember, or at least not consciously remember, each of her previous lives there is a tug of anxiety and precognition that alerts her to move or make different decisions. She cannot always tell why she feels as she does, but she knows action is needed. For example, she continually tries to save her siblings from the Spanish flu that the maid brings home after a night in London. Ursula cannot always remember why she must keep the maid from going to London or her siblings safe from the maid, she simply knows that it must be done.
While her life repeats, it isn’t the same life. Ursula makes different decisions that impacts where she ends up and how she dies. The decisions can be as innocuous as deciding which course of study she will take at university or deciding at what moment to go retrieve her handkerchief from her room. However, she is only making new decisions for herself. Each new life is changed by the different decisions other characters make. The easiest to explain example of this involves her affair with the naval officer Creighton. In some lives Creighton chooses to leave his wife and daughters, sometimes he has a child with Ursula, sometimes he leaves Ursula for his wife, and sometimes they part OR stay together due to the war. Creighton – at that time and place – has made slightly different decisions or been influenced by the decisions of others, thus “changing” Ursula’s life. In other words, this is not Groundhog Day set in WWII England. The decisions of Ursula and other characters do change history in a broad sense, but also influence the individual lives of the people around them. To this degree Life After Life is about the consequences of our decisions. All of our decisions from the seemingly insignificant to the big decisions regarding our purpose and values in life change both the course of history and the lives of people close to us.
Except when it doesn’t.
At one point Ursula is more aware of the knowledge of the past then in other lives previous. She has learned to hone in on her memory and feelings and make more informed decisions. So much death and strife is attributed to the rise of Hitler and WWII and Ursula decides to change the world by making no mistakes and ridding the world of Hitler. She kills herself and when she is reborn she focuses on studying German, learning to shoot, and placing herself at the right place and time to become best friends with Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Ursula succeeds in assassinating Hitler, is shot, dies, and then born again to the Todd family and – once again- Hitler and WWII are back on. Even when making no mistakes the decisions of Ursula Todd cannot prevent history from occurring. Those events are too big with deep historical roots. Even if she had completely annihilated Hitler there could well have been another despotic government to contend. As humans, our decisions have weight and gravity, but not everything is shaped by our individual decisions. As Ursula states regarding Hitler, “[h]e was born a politician. No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” Other individuals have agency over their own life choices. On the other hand, decisions are also shaped by individuals en masse – those big movements, religions, and oppressions that cannot be traced to a single person. Ursula constantly echos that the past is more difficult to change than the future and the complexity of individual decisions stacking up through the ages is part of that difficulty.
This is why anxiety is so fruitless, yet so very present. At one point in the book Ursula acutely experiences anxiety. Everything seems dangerous and she is plagued with worry, “[a]nd then suddenly she was on her feet, her heart knocking in her chest, a sudden familiar but long-forgotten terror triggered- but by what?” As I read that passage I felt the suffocation of my own anxiety acutely. However, Ursula cannot change the future. It will end in her death, there will be other deaths and pain, there will be joy, there will be life.
So how does one live life after life if your decisions are both important and unimportant? How does one handle the anxious clash of past and present?
Life After Life provides these answers and I’m simply pulling several quotations from Goodreads to illustrate:
- Do your best: “No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”
- Live mindfully: “Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.”
- Bear witness: “We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”“And if we are killed?”“Then others must remember us.”
- Embrace your life: “Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally. Death is just one more thing to be embraced.”
- Fight for what is good: “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win is for enough good women to do nothing.”
- The end and the beginning do not matter; it is the middle that counts: “In the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.” It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point.”
The fate of civilization does not rest in the hands of Ursula Todd, rather the decisions she makes and, more importantly, how she lives with her choices and the choices of others affect her life after life.