Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hey, I've read this before: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life gives reader déjà vu

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”
n  Wendell Berry

Reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life got me thinking about watching the television series Quantum Leap with my son when he was at 8 or 9. Dr. Sam Beckett, the brilliant quantum physicist working in time travel experiments, would leap through time and discover himself in strange clothes in a strange place at a moment in history.  
“Oh, boy,” he said. He took over someone else’s identity on a challenge to change that moment, to put right what went wrong. He would have to do this with an imperfect memory and equally imperfect sense of present and future -- not quite knowing how his actions might impact events – but of course in the end, he always prevented some grave injustice or near tragedy.
In Atkinson’s novel Ursula Todd has a similar fate. Similar, but not the same. In Life After Life, Ursula gets to redo the events of her life by restarting and making changes at pivotal points. She learns she has limited, but some, control over the consequences. She too has only vague past memory, but she always comes back as herself.
Most of the swirling constellation of those around her  -- family, friends, acquaintances also return as themselves. Indeed it is part of Atkinson’s gifts and playfulness that each character is so skillfully drawn that endearing – and not so endearing – traits make them delightfully recognizable. A reader welcomes their repeated returns like old friends. (Except for horrible husband Derek Oliphant. Good Riddance!) In the process the reader also gets swept into historical events from 1910 to 1967, with the heart of the book focused on those in London and Berlin during World War II.
Here’s how Life after Life works:
Ursula is born, but dies. She’s born again; she survives. She’s a toddler. She drowns.  Is born again and nearly drowns.  Influenza strikes.  And kills.  Ursula, still a young girl, intervenes and changes the outcome, which in turn causes another outcome and another Ursula intervention. While she is practicing to get it right, her parents intervene (after an “accident” that harms a maid) worried about Ursula’s actions and dreams. Enter Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist who’s also a bit of a philosopher and over time helps Ursula understand her life  ---  and life after life.
Dr. Kellet arrives in the nick of time.
Oh no! this reader was beginning to say each time dangers threatened in each incarnation.  Relief. Philosophical pondering softens the many threats.
Déjà vu, second sight, sixth sense, been here before. Circularity certainly controls the book’s structure and Ursula’s life. Ursula’s condition doesn’t quite fit other models. Kellet suggests reincarnation  -- a Buddhist concept though one usually is born into another form, he says
            Finally, Kellet introduces the 10-year-old to the concept of Amor fati (which Ursula hears as A more fatty)– love of one’s fate, a concept of Nietzsche, originally from Pindar, that as one character puts it, sounds Buddhist  (even ideas are circular). “A simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good.”  Kellet explains: “It means become who you are… It means become such as you are, having learned what that is.”
Indeed ideas of self seam the many versions of Ursula in the novel. As a small child Ursula struggles with the concept. She overhears the cook describing her son who has returned from WWI after being injured: “George was no longer really George.  Ursula’s mother Sylvie replies: “’I don’t think any of them (soldiers) are themselves anymore, ‘… Ursula tried to imagine not being Ursula but was defeated by the impossibility of the task.” And Hugh, her father in response on being questioned about the wellbeing of his sister Isobel replies: “’Izzie is Izzie’….. Izzie, apparently, had become herself a long time ago”{thinks Ursula}.
The theme thickens.
The plot produces more perils.
The dangers of childhood morph into the dangers of adolescence and young womanhood--  a stolen kiss, predatory school boys, creepy instructors. As her world gets bigger, the historical stakes of intervention also enlarge. Ursula navigates the shoals of life, and England is drawn once again into war.  Among the strongest impressions the novel offers are those of bombings in London and Berlin.
            As the story progresses, Atkinson explores how one is more than mere mix of nature and nurture; she plays with how history impacts individual identity and the individual may impact history. Entwined with explorations of meanings of “self” lies the high-stakes question: if you had a premonition of the evil that Hitler would cause and a chance to shoot him before it happened, would you pull the trigger? (Such large questions were avoided in Quantum Leap; only small, satisfying saves were made by intervention there). Atkinson chooses to approach -- and skirt the answer.
            Atkinson’s descriptive writing, sense of detail and characterization along the way drive the plot to an upbeat rhythm, despite distressing content – abuse, suicide, abortion, assassination, lost love ones --- even the worst act a mother can imagine.  The personal high stakes are equal to historical ones, but hardly seem so. Perhaps that’s because the reader knows Ursula will get another chance to make it right, but it’s also because of the humor and the author’s apparent love for the variety and bustle of multi-faceted family life.
 There’s proper mother Sylvie and loving father Hugh (for whom Ursula’s a favorite). Hugh’s black sheep sister, Izzie is the liberal bohemian.  Ursula’s own sister Pamela – solid, sporty and grounded is the one who like Sylvie before her mothers a brood. She’s also Ursula’s foil and confidante. Older brother Maurice is the odd prig who doesn’t seem to fit into the family while younger brother Teddy is loved by all and Jimmy the youngest seems almost an afterthought. The Shawcross family next door, bunnies and foxes make up the neighborhood at the House at Fox Corner. Indeed foxes skitter through the text, coming out of their dens in a variety of ways.  The name Todd is an ancient one for fox.
Speeches, poems and music play in the background. Section titles provide the melodies: Be Ye Men of Valor, a quote from Churchill’s rousing speech; Keats’ “Human Seasons;” Vera Lynn’s song, “A Land of Begin Again” and more modern songs--- “Like a Fox in a Hole,” “A Lovely Day Again, “ “The End of the Beginning.”
As readers we hum along, sensing the tune, knowing parts of the lines, expectant for new surprises.  Meanwhile Ursula is settling into her life, becoming who she is. Then, just when the future seems to have played itself out, the narrative shifts from changing it to an easier task – changing the past. The mysteries that remain ---  whatever  happened to x? Why did Y have to die? can be answered – or at least rewritten. This is fiction, after all. Unlike life, we don’t have to tolerate loose ends or dismal endings. Atkinson doesn’t disappoint. We may not be left with a happy ending, but at least we get a happier one.
 Considering what could have been, we become co-conspirators with Ursula and Atkinson.  In reading “Life after Life,” we feel deja vu over and over and as the text veers to prevent the worst from happening. We are all in this together. If Ursula accepts her fate, there’s another way to rewrite. Best of all, we get to choose a revision – and an ending.


  1. I have this but can't decide if I would like it or if I'm in the mood to tackle it right now.

  2. It sounds like you liked it, but I havent read it yet .... been putting it off.

  3. All of a sudden a different, interesting book! I was surprised and happy to read it, hope to enjoy Atkinson's other books as well.