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2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I’m a sucker for “different versions of the same events” stories. (I haven’t seen Groundhog’s Day, and that’s apparently a shame.) So, when I saw the description of this book in a “Notable books of 2013” list in a magazine, I decided I needed to read it.

The basic setup is this: Ursula Todd, third child of a comfortably middle class British family, is born in 1910, lives, and dies in various ways over and over again. Sometimes she lives for a few hours, sometimes a decade, sometimes a full life. Throughout all of her lives, you get to know her family and the friends and neighbors who show up again and again, and the whole thing has this deeply rooted cyclical movement that was really well done. There were certain images that were showed up in different ways in different lives, little variations in how her path crossed with certain people that ended up having big effects on the way things turned out… it was quite ingenious.

It was also quite moving. Ursula is born before WWI, and in lives where she lives long enough, she lives to see the London Blitz. And sometimes, she dies in it. Once, though, she ends up marrying a German citizen she meets before the war and dies during the Allied bombing of Germany. That last one was one of the endings where I needed to put the book away for a while and stop being terribly upset before I kept going. But it’s not just the big sweeping historical events that are moving. The relationships and little family dramas in the Todd household are given equal weight, and by the time I got to the third or fourth version where Ursula lives very long, I knew them all intimately, and I knew I wanted the best possible version of events for them.

That, though, raises the question of whether there is a best possible version of events. There are certainly awful versions where just about everything goes wrong, but there are others where the good is equally balanced with the bad, and in none of them is everything perfect.
Throughout the novel, Ursula is increasingly aware of the fact that she has lived this life before. She knows the name of the new neighbors before they are introduced. She has what everyone assumes is a strong sense of déjà vu when she visits places and meets people who had significance to her in other versions of her life. She also gets overwhelming feelings of dread before awful events, and eventually, she begins to listen to them and take action to prevent them. Making sure to walk with the neighbor girl who will be murdered if she wanders our alone, or making sure the maid who will bring the Spanish Flu into the house doesn’t go out to the celebration where she’ll catch it in the first place.

Eventually, after one of her longest lives we get in the novel, Ursula realizes that if she makes a certain set of decisions, she will end up in a position to kill Hitler long before WWII begins. (A friend of hers she met in one life knew Eva Braun, and in the version where she married the German, Ursula ends up meeting a whole spate of Nazi officials pre-1939.)

Ursula’s sudden shift from making little, personal changes that only affects her family or friends to attempting to change the entire course of 20th century history seemed at first to be tonally dissonant with the rest of the novel, but when I thought about it harder, I remembered how many of her lives ended during the war, and how many times she lived through it but lost family and saw a lot of death. I suppose knowing what was coming, knowing what horror could be avoided (maybe) if she could just kill one man before he could set off a chain of events that she knows will kill millions… the choice doesn’t seem like such a difficult one after all.

I guess my problem is with how we’re supposed to take all of this as readers. Yes, Ursula does succeed in assassinating Hitler in 1930. (Once. Or twice, if the first chapter and the one near the end are two different lives.) But in the next iteration of her life, the war has happened again, though with a happier outcome for her brother than in the other life where he was shot down. So what are we supposed to think about the great cosmic purpose for her memories of previous versions of her life? Obviously, it wasn’t to finally come around to a version where the war would be prevented, otherwise it would have stopped after the life where she finally made all of the choices that put her in the right place at the right time.

Maybe the key lies in Ursula’s mother Sylvie’s favorite phrase, “practice makes perfect,” which the narrator echoes at moments where Ursula manages to change the course of events based on her memories of previous lives. In most versions after the first where she dies of Spanish Influenza, Ursula manages to keep the sickness out of the house. And then, there’s the use of this line in the version where Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is the one who cuts the cord wrapped around her daughter’s neck at birth, a situation that proves fatal in any previous version where the doctor can’t get to the house because of the snow. So, that raises the question, is Ursula the only one who is reliving, or is she simply the only one who remembers reliving?

This is a book that made me wish I’d read it with a book club, because writing about it is nice, but talking about it with other people would be better.


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August 2014

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