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Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

Like many readers of “serious” fiction, I have a few less serious works which I very much enjoy. One of these is Replay by Ken Grimwood. In this novel, a forty-three year old sports journalist, Jeff Winston, dies of a heart attack and immediately is back when he was eighteen, just as he was then, with the only difference being that he can remember everything that had happened in his previous life. As a sport journalist, he now knows all the future results of major sports events as well as what stocks to buy. He makes a lot of money, hires armies of doctors to monitor him when he reaches forty-three and then dies of a heart attack again, again coming back but a bit later this time. This continues to occur but each time he comes back a bit later and each time different things happen to him. Another work on this theme is the very famous film Groundhog Day, where the Bill Murray character wakes up on the same day – Groundhog Day – every day till…

Kate Atkinson takes a somewhat different approach to these two ideas. Her heroine, Ursula Todd, is born but immediately dies, strangled by the umbilical cord. She is immediately born again and lives a bit longer but dies again while quite young and is immediately reborn again. This keeps on happening but, unlike Jeff Winston, each time she lives a different length of time, sometimes dying earlier, sometimes later. Sometimes the gap is very small between the ages at which she dies; indeed, she dies more or less at the same time more than once on two separate occasions, though gets to her death in different ways. But sometimes the gap is much larger. Sometimes she avoids death by a fortuitous set of circumstances, sometimes by a more sensible choice, sometimes someone else dies instead of her. Initially, she does not seem to have memories of her past lives but then, as she lives longer, she does. She remembers the names of people that she has yet to meet or events that have yet to happen. She does not know why. Her mother sends her to a psychiatrist. Some suggest she is having déjà vu. She remembers these events as dreams. Often she is troubled by a place or a meeting which we know was a key event in one of her previous lives.

What Atkinson does is not only use some very clever ways of retelling Ursula’s story (and that of her immediate family members) and not only find ways of having her die differently on each occasion (though that does not always happen, the events leading up to it are generally different in each case), she manages to do what novelists generally do which is to show the development of the character of Ursula and some of her closest family members over a period of time. However, instead of showing the development over a period of time, she is able to show her development over several lives. In one life, she might do something which is foolish or careless but, by the next life, she has learned, albeit subconsciously, how to behave differently. Using this technique, Atkinson is able to have her character develop without her getting any older.

Ursula comes from a fairly comfortably off middle class family, who live in Beaconsfield, about an hour from London. She is born on a very snowy day. Indeed, there is so much snow that the midwife cannot get through and the doctor who comes in her place has to spend the night. (The midwife sitting in the pub drinking while waiting for the snow to stop, is a recurring image.) Atkinson cleverly recounts her birth – and there are many, though we do not always start her life with her birth – in a different way, though by the time we get to her later lives, she tends to skip straight to her adulthood. Ursula has two older siblings – Maurice, an obnoxious, aggressive boy and an obnoxious, aggressive, snobbish, right-wing adult – and Pamela who is kind-hearted. She will have two younger brothers, Ted and Jimmy. Her childhood (apart from her regular deaths) is fairly conventional, with World War I (and its consequences – physically and psychologically damaged men) and the subsequent Spanish flu epidemic being key. World War II will be key for her, both as regards her romantic life and her professional life.

Atkinson is not just interested in trying to be clever, with Ursula’s different lives cross-crossing, though she is certainly not averse to occasional trickery. Nor is she just interested in the cheap laugh, though we certainly do get some of those. What makes this book more interesting than Replay and Groundhog Day is the story of a life or, rather several lives, as we see her sister and mother in some detail, too, developing in a fairly unusual way, with the focus on how they react, albeit subconsciously, to their previous existence. Is life circular? Can we change it? Kate Atkinson tells a first-class story in a different and unusual way, one that is definitely worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Doubleday