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Words

Starting Over

New chapters, new chances

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Local readers in need of a little jolt to get them through the gray days of March will find it in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. It’s unlike any novel in recent memory in its construction and sheer audacity.

In chapter after chapter, the main character, Ursula Todd, is killed off, only to be reborn on the same day, to live a version of her life all over again. This is no lighthearted Groundhog Day, however. The somber tone is clear from the start, when Ursula pulls a gun on Hitler in a Munich café in 1930. SS officers aim at Ursula. Darkness falls.

The scene changes: a snowy night in 1910, a woman in labor at a large home, Fox Corner, at the north edge of London. The doctor is unable to make it through the blizzard. The umbilical cord wraps around baby Ursula’s neck, “The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.”

Wow. But the next chapter begins again, and Kate Atkinson, as author and creator, gives Ursula another chance. Dr. Fellows braves the snow and is on hand to cut the umbilical cord. Ursula lives, only to die later when the family cat suffocates her in her crib. She dies again, as a toddler, swept out to the sea on holiday at Cornwall. Each time, the author resurrects her, until readers begin to get the pattern. Darkness falls. But instead of being grimly predictable, each version is wildly inventive, with Ursula’s life taking a different tack at every turn.

Certain characters fade, then reappear, in subsequent chapters: Ursula’s mother, Sylvie; her avant-garde aunt Izzie; her dear brother Teddy—who dies, then is reborn as a World War II pilot who becomes a German POW. Because readers get to see each character from many angles, a rich and detailed portrait emerges.

Atkinson is a masterful storyteller, as fans of her Jackson Brodie mystery series will attest. She doesn’t shy away from the dark and violent. She effortlessly ties together multiple story lines. Though Life After Life is complex, Atkinson keeps it easy to follow, and provides lots to ponder. What is the nature of fate? How many different ways could one’s life turn out?

Some may find Atkinson’s latest too contrived. Just when one starts to understand the novel, Atkinson changes the rules. As with any time-travel-type novel, one must suspend disbelief.  But, for those willing, it’s worth it to marvel at her creativity.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. Perkins reviews fiction for Library Journal and loves discussing books each month with friends in two local book clubs.

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