What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
Author Kate Atkinson explores this question by Nietzsche in her book Life after Life, one of the most fascinating and original novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I know – high praise that will raise one’s expectations – I know. But believe me when I say that this novel – which could have failed on so many different levels – is a gem.
We meet Ursula Todd on the very day she is born: February 11, 1910. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her throat, and she dies shortly after her birth.
“The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.”
But on the very next page, we are back at the beginning again. February 11, 1910, and this time the doctor arrives in time and has saved Ursula’s life. He cut the cord in the nick of time, and we are on our way through Ursula’s many lives. We will witness her birth 10 more times during the course of the book.
At first, Ursula doesn’t make it out of childhood; we see her die as a young child during an ordinary day at the beach. We start over. This time, as she navigates through her days and nights, I realized that I was experiencing a strange sensation as I read: fear. Fear for this little girl. Good grief, do not go out on the icy roof! Something bad could happen – and it does. Over and over.
Sometimes Ursula comes into life with a vague remembrance of things she should not do, or things she should not allow to happen. It’s déjà vu in its purest form. In some lives, her parents are worried about her seeming ability to predict the future. But in other lives, she has no premonitions, no clue as to the outcome of her life.
Through the various incarnations that we witness, Ursula dies many times and in many different ways. But gradually one thread begins to emerge in this complicated weave, and a purpose for Ursula – a reason for living, perhaps – begins to emerge. The question is: can Ursula control the outcome of anything in her future lives?
Kate Atkinson is such a gifted writer; who else could make the same story, told over and over again, seem new and exciting each time?
Each life presents minute differences, differences which end up making serious changes occur later on in time.
Atkinson also allows us to bond with Ursula and her family – a strong bond that makes this a very emotional read.
I loved this book, and I’m ready to dive into the companion novel that was published earlier this year, called A God in Ruins. It’s the story of Ursula’s brother Teddy, told not in life after life, but in flashbacks and in awe of the fact that he’s still alive after the war, trying to get through a future he never thought he’d have.