There are three epigraphs at the beginning of Kate Atkinson's new novel, Life After Life. One is from Nietzsche, one from Plato and a quote from one of the book's characters. They all boil down to the same essential question: If you could relive your life, if you had the chance to do it all again and change things for the better or worse, would you?
Ursula Beresford Todd has no choice in the matter. She is born, and born, and born again on the 11th February 1910, and each time the thread of her life spools out slightly differently. The first time we meet her for only the briefest moment before she dies, the umbilical cord choking off her first breath.
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical work has suddenly evaporation. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath. Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzz of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear. Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
The second time she survives through the intervention of a doctor; another time because her mother snips the cord with a suspicious prescience. This is the first hinge of many in her life, when events might shift and send a shiver of change through the story.
Sometimes Ursula lives to be an elderly spinster, other times 'the black bat' comes for her and she dies of childhood flu, or under a collapsing wall in Blitz-torn London, or even during one memorable twist by biting down on a cyanide capsule. There are some constants - her father, Hugh; her mother Sylvie; her incorrigible, flirtatious Aunt Izzie; her brothers and sisters - but other figures loom in and out of her lives. Friends, lovers, husbands, children. Each iteration is different but similar enough that gradually, as the repetition grows insistent, Ursula becomes aware of a detritus of memories, emotions and fears from the times before. She experiences powerful deja vu as a child, remembers events that have never happened both past and future. Sometimes this drives her quite mad, and othertimes not. Unconsciously at first, and then with ever greater determination, she starts trying to change things.
The novel is a slow burner, inevitably. The structure is complicated, each version of Ursula's life opening up more and more opportunities for the plot to diverge, and each chapter dodging back and forth between 1910 and 1967 and all the points in between. There are times that Ursula gets stuck - at the age of 8 she is repeatedly thwarted by the Spanish Flu epidemic, which either kills her or a selection of her siblings; and later the Blitz is a myriad of deaths. But, as she notes herself, practise makes perfect. The practising gives Atkinson a lot of room to manoeuvre as a writer. She can tickle a scene from many different angles, play with different scenarios, test character's reactions. It is a game of 'what ifs' and might have beens, like history itself: a historian nephew of one of Ursula's later lives nonchalently shrugs his subject off as a litany of them.
It's a risky technique, as it robs the narrative of forward momentum and leads the reader round and round in circles. But Atkinson pulls it off with the surgical precision of her prose and the generosity of her characters. Ursula is the lynchpin of her particular world, but her family (and her relationships with them) is beautifully drawn out: prickly, unsatisfied mother Sylvie; quiet, unpreposessing father Hugh; boisterous, unlikeable elder brother Maurice; sensible sister Pammy; Teddy the much loved family favourite and Jimmy, the WWI victory baby, whose sexual 'leanings' are clear from a young age. There are lovely subtleties at work as we relive their pleasures, fear and grief over and over again. It gives the illusion of a much longer acquaintance than is usual in a novel, and I could have stood longer.
Ironically it is Ursula who loses out in this dance of characterisation, at least in the traditional sense. There is an essential core to her personality, but the variety of her life experiences across the novel change her in significant ways and these many Ursulas make it difficult to know what is real about her. An almost-constant of her lives is Dr Kellet, a psychiatrist who tries to help her with her dreams and deja vu. He exhorts her to consider Pindar: 'Become such as you are, having learned what that is.' Ursula is in the enviable and dreadful position of being able to do that, with an infinity of attempts at childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
At first she is concerned to alter and finesse her own life experiences and those her siblings. But with WWI and WWII in her path, it is inevitable that she has to cast her net of influence wider. How can she save Teddy from a fiery death over Berlin during a WWII bombing raid, or her childhood friend Benjamin Cole's family from the horrors of the Holocaust? There is an air of inevitability about what she concludes. What if the life of the author of all this horror could be cut off in a moment? There is a strand of Ursula's lives that takes her to 1930s Germany, to make friends with Eva Braun, to pick up her father's WWI revolver and end a pivotal life. It is a bit of a narrative cliche this 'What if someone killed Hitler?' conceit, but Atkinson holds her nerve with it. It isn't the main purpose of the narrative, it is just another action that Ursula works her way towards, given no more or less weight in the story than her struggles with the Spanish Flu. The incident that looms largest, in fact, is a particular bomb hit during the Blitz of 1940 which Ursula returns to again and again with unrelenting despair and poignancy and just a little, perfect touch of humour.
One thing: I'd get the hardcopy if I had my time again (and I will get one for my collection, and for re-reading). I had an e-ARC and found reading it on my Kindle quite frustrating. It's the kind of book where you want to flick backwards through it to re-read earlier chapters, earlier iterations of Ursula's life. Navigating through the chapter headings was impossible, as reiterated sections all have the same titles, and I realised how bad I am at predicting the bitsI will want to come back to. But never mind these niggly personal frustrations. Life After Life comes highly recommended by me and I predict it will be on the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist (whenever that comes out - soon I hope).