“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right?”
Kate Atkinson is at heart a comedic writer, in that great nineteenth century tradition (Dickens, Thackeray) that sees the utter absurdity of life, even within its tragedy, without losing the heart of compassion. There is a joyousness in her writing, despite the fact that she is often writing about horror and pain.
In Life After Life she twines her comedic, compassionate sense of tragedy with a rumination on time and metaphysical ideas about time. Set mainly in the period shortly before the first world war and into post second world war austerity, the story follows the many postulated lives of Ursula, an upper middle class girl, who either dies at birth in 1910, or is rescued at birth by prompt medical intervention, dies later by drowning as a small child, or is rescued from drowning, has several sexual encounters, and marries or does not marry a couple of men with disastrous result. She may also succeed, or not succeed, at changing the course of history in spectacular fashion, or succeed or not succeed in changing the course of her own family’s history in spectacular fashion.
This is a sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ but rather more deep as history itself alters, or potentially may alter by the lives, deaths and choices that any of us make or are made for us.
Atkinson is playful, messes with, and provokes the reader’s mind, slaps us around the face with the horror of the trenches, the holocaust, the petty and accidental violence we wreak upon each other, and also the deliberate savagery we engage in. However, she also judges when we can take no more and with a turn of phrase or observation of the absurd, lightens the tone.
A classic example of this is an early visit young Ursula makes to an analyst, after she apparently tries to push the maid of all work down the stairs, breaking her bones. (She has some very good reasons) Dr Kellett, the analyst who works with First World War Soldiers in Trauma, is of rather mystical persuasion, and takes Ursula’s sense of time as a veil, lightly masking other times, other possibilities, rather seriously.
His extremely adult conversation with Ursula about the nature of time is completely misunderstood by the 9 year old and the joyous misinterpretations of high erudite classical reference are an example of vintage Atkinson:
“Amor fati” Dr Kellet said “have you heard of that” It sounded like he had said “A more fatty”. Ursula was puzzled-both herself and Dr Kellett were on the lean side
As what is swirling round in the subtext here is the still present effects of the carnage of the Great War, such interludes are deeply appreciated by the reader, Atkinson’s effortless marriage of darkness and light.
As ever her writing is clear, with pace, nothing orotund or self-indulgent, her characters interesting and with quirky, real depth, and her plots pull the reader in, deeper and deeper.
Life After Life
I received this as a digital copy for review from NetGalley