For most fiction writers, the decision to kill off a character (or not) is a big one, something undertaken reluctantly (unless you are George R.R. Martin). Writers tend to become attached to their major characters, spending hundreds of hours with these imaginary people, and their entire investment in their craft is predicated upon whether or not a reader somewhere in the world will care if their character lives or dies.
In Life After Life, however (Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel), Ursula Todd is killed off early — upon her birth, in fact — and then again and again. It’s not that Atkinson doesn’t care for her protagonist; she seems to be quite fond of her. Rather, Atkinson is exploring the notion, expressed by Ursula’s beloved brother, Teddy — that it would be wonderful “if we had a chance to do it [life] again and again, until we got it right.”
Whether killed in childbirth, or from a seashore drowning on vacation, or from the Spanish influenza, Ursula dies “early and often” (the way they vote in Chicago!), but she always comes back. The reader is tipped off to this fact from the outset, but what hangs in the balance are the lives of the other characters, whose deaths may or may not be permanent. We can only read on to find out. This may be the real source of tension in Life After Life, because Atkinson skillfully endears us to her characters at the same time that she feigns disregard for them (sometimes through the persona of Ursula’s intelligent but dissatisfied mother, Sylvie):
“She never knows where those girls are,” Sylvie said [of a mother whose child had been abducted and murdered]. “She just lets them run wild. Now she’s paying the price of her carelessness.”
“Oh, Sylvie,” Hugh said sadly. “Where is your heart?”
What’s interesting about Ursula’s lives is that none of them are, in a traditional sense, perfectly “right,” just different from one another, with some being better and others being worse. Ursula never meets the love of her life or bears surviving children; she doesn’t achieve fame or fortune and is always viewed as slightly odd by her own family. But in some lives she meets an untimely, grisly end, or suffers a rape and subsequent abortion, or marries an abusive husband, while in others she has meaningful friendships, enjoys the company of her brother Teddy, has romantic entanglements (none ultimately lasting) with desirable men. Eventually it becomes evident that Ursula can have an impact on future events: if she knows that something might have a bad outcome, she can reverse it. This renders her behavior strange to normal people, who don’t know what she’s trying to accomplish (as when she pushes a housekeeper down the stairs out of a sense of dread, thereby sparing the woman from going out into London and contracting the Spanish flu that weekend, then spreading it to the entire household).
one assumes Atkinson made it safely down this particular flight of stairs
Sometimes Atkinson’s plot minutiae is hard to understand (is Ursula the only character with this power? Can only she save and spare the others around her?). One curious character is her psychotherapist, Dr. Kellet, who after the War speaks sadly about his son Guy, “lost at Arras.” In a later incarnation Ursula glances around his office and, without thinking, blurts, “Where is the picture of Guy?” Dr. Kellet looks at her blankly and asks, “Who is Guy?” It’s a disorienting moment for the reader, who has grown to associate the doctor with his beloved lost son. Surely Ursula has had no influence on Dr. Kellet’s family and whether or not he has had a son, leaving the reader to wonder if Dr. Kellet, as someone tapped into this world, understanding reincarnation, has the power of multiple lives as well. But if so, wouldn’t he be somewhat aware of it, as is Ursula (particularly because he is older, and studies such ideas for his career?).
Such questions are not unexpected in a novel that plays fast and loose with time and space, and they don’t interfere too much. While I definitely preferred some sections to others (I loved most everything set at Fox Corner, because I became so fond of Ursula’s parents, Hugh and Sylvie; I detested the whole bit with the nonsensically abusive Derek Oliphant and was relieved when Ursula died there so we could get on with her next life), I found almost all of her characters very well-done. Atkinson’s skippy, parenthetical writing style can get a bit distracting at times, but it does give the impression that the author herself has known these characters, can recall with affection the time they said this-or-that, the time(s) they had the hated veal a la russe for dinner, and so on. (So dry-witted and British are some of the characters that you almost get the sense that a character can become larger-than-life, obtain immortality, simply by delivering a particularly wry, spot-on one-liner.)
Occasionally, the author seems to be avoiding sentimentality so stringently that her characters exist at a distance (when Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, dies, for example, Ursula never reflects on this major event, never expresses anything but the most oblique sadness). A stiff British upper lip? Even that explanation can’t quite suffice. (One wonders if Atkinson is gun-shy at the mere thought of writing “chick lit,” if she’s avoiding the overtly feminine realm of affection and feeling.)
But overall, for its fantastic characters, experimental framework, and historical details, Life After Life is a satisfying read, perfect for book clubs.