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Reviewed: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Time and again.

Life After Life
Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 480pp, £18.99

To live your life over again, only with better decisions, is something that many people wish for and that Hollywood has often explored, in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Sliding Doors. We are often drawn to pondering where we may have taken a wrong turn. Historians, too, have delighted in imagining what might have been had, say, Japan not bombed Pearl Harbor. Yet with the exception of a handful of books in which the Nazis win the Second World War, the novel, oddly, has eschewed such counterfactuals.

Kate Atkinson’s eighth novel is a departure from her recent, bestselling Jackson Brodie detective series. It follows the life of Ursula Todd, who we know from the start is going to assassinate Hitler in one of her incarnations but who might not survive birth at all. Her entry into the world on 11 February 1910 is replayed again and again and, depending on whether the doctor gets through the snow or surgical scissors are available to cut the cord wrapped around the baby Ursula’s neck, her life gets on its way – or doesn’t. Nor does her peril end there. In the course of two world wars and an appalling marriage, Ursula experiences murder, death by drowning, execution, being crushed in the Blitz, gassing and suicide.

She begins to remember these past versions of her life and attempts to change her future. Ursula is in keeping with Atkinson’s previous angry, intelligent women survivors and avengers. Once she has made determined, repeated efforts to save the family maid, Bridget, and her little brother from dying of Spanish flu, we’re on her side. Each time, we are told how “darkness fell” but, each time, she is reborn.

In some ways, this is a modern version of the Snow White fairy tale; snow even falls as Ursula is born. The novel asks us to question the power an author has over a narrative and also our conceptions of fate. A kindly psychiatrist to whom Ursula is sent after she pushes Bridget downstairs (thus saving her from the flu) expounds on the Buddhist theory of reincarnation and Nietzsche’s concept of “amor fati”, explaining it as “a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good”. Yet if you are given the power to avert death and cruelty, why not do so?

We’ve been here before with Groundhog Day but Atkinson’s heroine, unlike the character played by Bill Murray in the film, isn’t bent on her own romantic fulfilment. One life, in which she is raped by her elder brother’s friend, has an abortion and falls into a terrible abusive marriage, is especially dark. Her multiple deaths almost become a kind of joke, as the life is repeatedly lived over again from birth.

Despite the playfulness with which the author makes time collapse on itself, repeat and restart, her subject is the salvation of the Todd family and, possibly, many other people. By returning to characters and incidents, she builds up an almost pointillist impression of her world. The personal merges with the political; by the end, the happiness and survival of the Todd family have become a matter of keen interest.

Time and memory are at the heart of much of Atkinson’s work. Though she still has a tendency to resort to excessive allusion and literary quotation, she is always funny and humane. She never ducks the sorrows of loss and human cruelty but an optimistic exuberance keeps coming through. Her characters and families convince, even as their author insists on their fictionality, because they change as real people do.

This is, without doubt, Atkinson’s best novel since her prizewinning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and a serious step forwards to realising her ambition to write a contemporary version of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. A ferociously clever writer, she has recast her interest in mothers and daughters and the seemingly unimportant, quotidian details of life to produce a big, bold novel that is enthralling, entertaining and experimental. It is not perfect – the second half of the book, for example, could have done with one less dead end – but I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize.

Amanda Craig is the author of six novels, including “A Vicious Circle” and “Hearts and Minds” (Abacus, £10.99 and £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem