Have you ever wondered what would have happened if you’d done something differently? If you changed how a major event or minor detail in your life had played out, where your life might have taken you? And if you had the chance to live your life again what would you do differently?
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores this concept. In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm. The midwife who has been called to attend the birth is stuck because of the snow. The doctor doesn’t arrive in time for the birth. The cord is wrapped around her neck and she dies before she can draw a breath.
In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm and lives to tell the tale. They call her Ursula, and she goes on to live life after life.
I’ve had Life After Life on my bookshelf for four years now but I’ve been wary of starting it. My friend gave me the book, but when I started having problems with my pregnancy warned me not to read it until I was in a better place. I was wary about what this meant and so I only really felt in the right place to approach it recently.
I found Life After Life to be an incredibly powerful book and technically brilliant. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson tells us the story of Ursula Todd and her family multiple times, shifting small details of each telling to craft the impression of a different life but despite this repetition, the text doesn’t become repetitive. If anything, this repetition serves to increase the emotional impact as you see the near inevitability of the story playing out again and again. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the section in which Ursula and her family are visited by the Spanish Flu which devastated so much of Europe at the end of World War Two. The scenes here weren’t obviously emotively written, but they were emotionally devastating. At the same time, this is where Atkinson carefully begins to draw out the idea that Ursula might be something more than the strange and thoughtful child that her family characterise her as, and we begin to see that her sense of déjà vu is related to tragedies in her previous attempts at living the same life.
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
This isn’t so much a novel about reincarnation as second chances, and doing things right. It asks us, what does it mean to live your life well? In some of Ursula’s lives that move on to adulthood she experiences truly harrowing experiences, rape, domestic violence, the loss of her child, but even in the lives where these things don’t occur, and in which she has satisfying relationships with her friends and family, it seems that for the purposes of the novel, she won’t have succeeded in living her life unless her brother Teddy survives the war and his true love Nancy also survives.
I found this focus on the character of Teddy very interesting, because for me it further complicated the mother child relationship that we see between Ursula and her mother Sylvie. There are hints throughout the novel that Sylvie is living her own version of Ursula’s life after life, Sylvie makes reference to “the black bat” of darkness which comes to symbolise Ursula’s death as having been vanquished in one of the first chapters when her baby has survived, experiences similar flashbacks to comforting memories of her own happy place when going through periods of stress, but compellingly has a pair of surgical scissors in her bedside drawer to save her own baby, repeating Ursula’s motto of “practice makes perfect” suggesting that she has indeed made a mental note that this is something that she will need from one of her previous lives. Both Sylvie and Ursula single Teddy out as being special as being the one they will do anything for. Initially I thought that this meant that Teddy was the child of Sylvie’s affair, but in the same life, Ursula notes that Ted had inherited Hugh’s smile.
Part of me wonders whether there is meant to be some kind of deeper resonance between their characters that needs to be in alignment in order for a good life to be lived. In the good life which sees Sylvie save Ursula and Teddy then survive the war, their character’s best lives are lived in alignment with their right actions combining to ensure the positive action. In one of the most distressing versions of Ursula’s life, when Ursula comes to see herself as deficient and broken, Sylvie’s attitude reflects this break and this is the time that we see her character at her worst as she rejects her daughter and Ursula notes that she used to love her, and now she didn’t. This is also the story in which Ursula sees Sylvie with another man, so we can suspect that some of this is projected self-loathing. It’s clear that while Sylvie repeatedly insists that there is no higher calling for a woman than being a wife and mother, there are times at which she resents this role and seems to envy Izzie’s freedom. In one of Ursula’s better lives, it is implied that her daughter rejects this role and lives a fulfilling life without becoming a wife or mother.
In the end, as I read it, Ursula’s successful life, the one in which Teddy survives and she gets to continue her life with him, isn’t the one in which she kills Hitler. It’s interesting to see that the follow up to Life After Life, A God in Ruins will focus on Teddy’s life after the events of Life After Life, and I’ll add this to my dangerously tall TBR pile to see whether Kate Atkinson offers up any answers to the questions that Life After Life has left me with.