Novel: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

May 11, 2021

If an author is to be afforded the luxury of combining two truly shopworn tropes — the Groundhog Day reincarnation loop and the time-traveling Hitler murder — I suppose it might as well be one with as much skill, humor, and effortless readability as Kate Atkinson. Life After Life (2013) will not surprise science fiction fans, but it might please them, as it will Atkinson’s many mainstream readers. A richly designed, lightly fantastical historical, it’s about Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910 during an epic snowstorm. Ursula’s first life is short, but then she’s born again, and again, the various and sundry iterations of her existence playing out against the dramatic backdrop of twentieth-century Europe.

Most of Ursula’s lives transpire in isolation from one another, and for the first hundred pages or so, the novel largely reads like a study in cause and effect, spooling out story to key diversion points, then rewinding to examine ways things might have gone differently. Eventually, though, the timelines start to bleed together across the hazy landscape of Ursula’s memory, as flashes of deja vu arrive like premonitions, prompting her to change course to avert disaster. This becomes especially important, of course, when one timeline sends her overseas on a language-learning year abroad, during which she befriends a German shopgirl by the name of Eva Braun — eventually steering Ursula toward a fateful showdown with the world’s most famous genocidal sociopath.

Life After Life leverages its semi-science fictional premise well enough, but it’s easy to see how it escapes the genre label, since the focus is less on the gimmick than on the more mundane furniture of the world(s): chiefly, the family life at Ursula’s childhood home of Fox Corner, and the violent history of 20th century Europe. Even if she doesn’t seem particularly interested in the skiffy mechanics of the idea, Atkinson still benefits from the speculative what-if scenarios that result. She leverages them to great effect, particularly in the way she reflects on the toxic gender dynamics of the era, and the apocalyptic wartime suffering Ursula is forced to suffer across multiple timelines. This last element contributes greatly to the novel’s gut-wrenching emotional impact, and seems all the more timely now in light of the chilling parallels between modern times and yesteryear. (Both the Spanish flu and the Third Reich figure prominently in the cyclical plot lines; reading this during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the wake of the Trump presidency, made the novel all too unnervingly relatable.) Certain seasoned science fiction readers will likely be churlish about a mainstream novelist parlaying classic SF ideas into literary street cred, but I’m not one of them; Atkinson’s take seems just as valid as anyone else’s, and is likely more entertaining than most.