Friday, November 15, 2013

Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson, best known for the Jackson Brody detective series that began with Case Histories, has a wonderful new book out. Life After Life is like none other by this literary writer. It's main protagonist is Ursula Todd and its setting is Great Britain, 1910-1944.

This is a realistic novel whose depictions of life in London during WWI and WWII are made even more realistic by the larger-than-life characters surrounding Ursula. She is born to an upper-class family and spends an idyllic childhood in the beautiful English countryside complete with housekeeper and cook. Their home is surrounded by meadow and stream and numerous foxes running about. Sylvie Todd, Ursula's mother, aptly names the home, "Fox Corner," raising four very different children there. The siblings play major roles in the lives of each other.

Fox Corner takes on almost mythic qualities over the decades.  Helen Brown, in The Telegraph  (April 22, 2013) notes that the very name is a literary nod to A. A. Milne's Pooh Corner and E. M. Forster's Windy Corner. But Atkinson's Fox Corner "is neither a foreign country nor a safe haven...This fox corner is a place where the flesh of the human inhabitants is as vulnerable as that of the chickens destined for Mrs. Glover's pot. The sweet peas rambling through the borders are tended by a man who has lost half his face in the Great War.  He wears a tin mask with one eye painted on, permanently open."

What is most unique about Life After Life is that Ursula dies at the end of each chapter and then is miraculously reborn in the next. Ursula always comes back to life with a sense of dread that something has happened but is unaware of anything other than her sense of Deja vu. As the years pass and more events--both personal and public--unfold, she acquires a sense of dread and attempts to change the outcome of history.  Atkinson obviously has fun with this notion.  For example, Ursula befriends Eva Braun in one chapter and, when introduced to Hitler before his rise to power, takes out a gun and assassinates him. How differently life would have turned out for England and, indeed, for the entire world had that occurred.

But Atkinson's novel is not about death and rebirth. That concept is tangential to the main story and is employed as literary technique. Instead, the book is a portrait of an exceptional woman during a period when enormous social, cultural and economic upheaval rocked England. Atkinson does not spare us the horrors of The Blitz and the long-time impact it had on its citizens.  All the while, our focus in on Ursula as she makes choices that affect her own life and the lives of those around her.

Still, the book begs the question: "What if our lives were afforded different endings over and over again...?"

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