Darkness and so on and on

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
    Doubleday, 477 pp, £18.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 385 61867 0

Kate Atkinson is in no danger of prosecution for misrepresenting goods. Life after Life does exactly what it says on the spine of the book, offering a number of versions of the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. These lives aren’t exactly alternatives: it’s unclear what happens to the (very slightly) variant worlds when she dies in them, but then how would this information be conveyed? It’s a religious problem more than one of narrative technique. At some points, though, Ursula sacrifices herself for others, which would be an empty act if the world she was leaving ceased to exist.

The cosmology is opaque, just the same. If, say, Ursula assassinates Hitler before he comes to power, all she has done is to create a single world (among the infinite number) in which Nazism sputters out – unless this version of reality overwrites the previous ones like a computer file when the save button is pressed. The important thing for the character is her belief that she can make a real and lasting difference. It’s the writer’s job to make this enough for the reader too.

Ursula doesn’t necessarily remember the details of her past lives, but is given warning of potential crisis by a sensation of déjà vu attaching to particular times and places. She resembles an epileptic alerted by distortions of aura to the imminence of a fit. Her experience of déjà vu is known to her parents. They send her to a Harley Street psychiatrist who has studied the new mind science in Vienna (not many of those on Harley Street in the early 1920s, with the British Medical Association not officially recognising psychoanalysis until 1929). The topics of discussion with Dr Kellet aren’t narrowly therapeutic (though he mentions the possibility of a neurological flaw) but include reincarnation in Buddhist thought, amor fati and becoming who you are, as recommended by Pindar.

On the practical level, Ursula learns to intervene. It would be asking too much for her to disentangle her own newborn neck from the umbilical cord, but in other, less truncated versions of her life she shapes events at a young age. ‘Practice makes perfect’ – one of the refrains of the book. It takes her several goes (several deaths and new beginnings) before she succeeds, aged eight, in preventing Bridget the housemaid from going up to London for the Armistice celebrations at a time of mass infection. It’s like a GCSE module (Not Dying in, or Losing Family Members to, the Influenza Pandemic) that Ursula can retake any number of times until the result is satisfactory.

Ursula practises a sort of invisible mending on the family’s fate-cloth, sometimes performing her darning more widely. She learns to forestall the murder of a neighbour, Nancy Shawcross, who if her survival can be contrived will make the ideal mate for one of Ursula’s brothers. It’s hard to remember everything, though, and at least once she uses her knowledge of time and space to bump into a handsome local boy instead, forgetting to save Nancy from rape and strangulation. Darn! Darn again! Practice makes perfect.

Most fiction about tampering with history (since at least Ray Bradbury’s story ‘A Sound of Thunder’, published in 1952) places a lot of emphasis on unintended consequences. Chaos theory as popular culture imagines it, in The Butterfly Effect or the Back to the Future films, is more concerned with spiralling anomalies than any sort of balance. In Life after Life the neglect of Nancy is a rare failure of watchfulness, a dropped stitch rather than an irreversible unravelling. Nothing is beyond repair – but nothing is fixed in perpetuity.

Reality is resistant stuff even when you have a special ability to manipulate it. There’s a suggestion that Ursula’s character is shaped by past incidents even when they don’t recur directly. In one life she is sexually forced at the age of 16 by a young American visitor to her home. She gets pregnant and has an abortion, in a well-appointed and professional clinic that seems at least as unusual for its time (though in Belgravia rather than Harley Street) as the psychiatrist she was sent to earlier. Her sense of disgrace and damage leads her into an abusive marriage that she might otherwise have avoided – as she will next time round, not by refusing the marriage but by forestalling the assault, nipping her possible abusive future not just in the bud but in the seed. Yet her sexual choices in the next version are distinctly defensive: a liaison with a married man, guaranteed not to get out of hand, and a friendship, carrying only the most moderate romantic charge, with a fellow student on her German course. It’s as if her behaviour is being shaped by residual trauma. She has a secondary vulnerability, like a passive smoker’s, that is real nevertheless.

In the rape-abortion-abusive-marriage life she becomes an alcoholic, though this doesn’t seem to leave a hangover in later lives, where she can indulge in the occasional Dubonnet, even a nice bottle of Burgundy at the weekend, without losing her equilibrium. She takes the alcohol dependency to the grave with her, or rather (since graves seem to be irrelevant) she doesn’t take it to the next cradle.

It’s after Ursula has experienced for herself the end of the war in Berlin that she takes the decision to assassinate Hitler before he can become Chancellor. The moment of her death in 1945 seems to be a moment of particular insight. In a ruined Berlin, she decides to kill herself and her daughter (it’s the only timeline in which she becomes a mother). This must surely be a turning point: ‘She had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew that something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.’ A few more lifetimes of wartime suffering go by, spent living through the Blitz, before she takes matters into her own hands:

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