Saturday, August 10, 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a remarkable achievement. It is a literary palimpsest, with one woman’s life written over and over, creating a brilliantly multifaceted portrait. 

Born during a snow storm in 1910, Ursula Todd is strangled by her own umbilical cord. A series of chance events means there is no doctor or midwife there to help the mother, Sylvie Todd, with the baby’s delivery. Darkness falls, the chapter ends, and we understand that the infant Ursula has died. But the next chapter it is the same day, the same scene. A snowstorm. Sylvie is about to give birth, but this time Dr Fellowes has made it through the storm to Fox Corner, the Todd’s family house. He knows what to do: snip the umbilical cord and save the baby’s life. Ursula Todd, it soon becomes apparent, lives many lives through this 480 page novel. The narrative jumps back and forth over time, between 1910 and 1967, and Ursula dies and lives many times, with ‘darkness falling’ being the metaphor for death. We see the many possible lives Ursula may have lead. Or rather, actually does lead. The great achievement of Life After Life is how all the different lives seem integrated into the one life, as though our very consciousness, with all its imaginative powers, means we all live many lives in one.

The structure of the novel may make it sound like a nightmare to read, toing and froing as it does over many decades. Atkinston’s deftness and skill, however, makes this a fabulously readable novel. It took me about 200 pages to figure out what was going on, but the novel’s hallucinatory quality was so delicious I didn’t mind at all. Once I got to the end, and so much of the story had been stitched up, my immediate impulse was to go back and start all over again. Atkinson writes a kind of literary palimpsest, with one persona written over another, written over another. It all meshes together in this beautiful series of dreamy yet real portraits, almost like a 1910s Cubist painting by George Braque.

But it’s also so much more than that. In many ways, Life After Life reads like a British novel of the war period between 1910 and 1945. Atkinson’s wit, humour and sharp observation made me think of Stella Gibbons’ war novels, like Westwood (1946) and The Matchmaker (1949), and even Nancy Mitford’s spoof on the British Fascists, Wigs on the Green (1935). The large Todd family, with all of its squabbling siblings, their alliances and enmities, was also very reminiscent of the Mitfords, especially the family history revealed in the vast correspondence collected in the extraordinary Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley. Unity Mitford, who notoriously befriended Hitler only to attempt suicide after he declared war on Britain, even makes an appearance in Life After Life. (I’d wager that Atkinson was very much influenced by the Mitford family.)

There is a quote at the beginning by Nietzsche, from The Gay Science, which basically extolls the virtue of joyfully embracing your fate, no matter how dire it is. While Life After Life perhaps doesn’t go that far, it does have a warm, lovely tone that makes you feel that life, despite its griefs and terrors and injustices, is indeed a wonderful thing.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and highly accomplished novel. I envy anyone about to embark upon it.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Published by Transworld Publishers. ISBN: 9780385618687  $32.95