Kate Atkinson has enjoyed the status of bestselling novelist since her debut novel Behind the Scenes of the Museum was first published in 1995. She has written a number of adored literary novels as well as a series of crime books adapted for the BBC. Her recent novel, Life after Life is perhaps her most ambitious and has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction.
Atkinson goes forward and back in time from 1910 to 1945 as she charts the Spanish flu epidemic, the rise and fall of Hitler and two World Wars. The loss of friends and family and the hardships of a generation are felt on every page.
The novel opens in dramatic fashion in 1930. Ursula opens her bag, pulls out her father’s old service revolver and shoots a man referred to as the ‘Fuhrer’. After the conclusion of the first short chapter the words ‘Darkness Fell’ appear, words that the reader will read over and over after the many deaths of Ursula.
Atkinson then returns to 1910 when a baby girl is born, or is she? Different paths are explored as Atkinson reveals how one event can alter the future. The doctor makes it through the snow just in time to save baby Ursula, the third child and first daughter to Hugh and Sylvie Todd, cutting the cord that is wrapped around her neck threatening strangulation and the end of her short life. But then at the same moment Mrs Glover, the cook, wakes Bridget, the 14-year-old maid, to inform her that the doctor has been kept away by the harsh weather and the baby girl is dead. After Ursula’s death there are the words Darkness Fell.
Over the course of the book Ursula is born and dies over and over again. As a child she drowns, she slips on ice as she climbs out of a window. At the end of each one of her deaths – Darkness Fell.
Even Bridget’s storyline is one that alters. She may or may not die of Spanish flu along with Teddy, beloved brother. Alternatively Ursula, filled with a great dread, might have thrown her down the stairs to ward off the possibility of her infecting Teddy with the fatal strain of flu.
As Ursula moves on through life her mother becomes concerned about her attachment to the past and her keen sense of deja vu, sending her off to a psychiatrist for help.
Surrounded by a large family, her siblings provide pleasure and pain in equal measures, morose Maurice, lovable Teddy, young Jimmy and sister and confidante Pamela. Did Maurice’s American friend rape Ursula altering her life forever or did she stand up to her attacker and walk away undamaged? Did she leave London for Germany? Is provocative Aunt Izzie really the saviour Ursula desires or the bad influence Sylvie is certain she is? With each storyline Ursula goes back in time attempting to get it right the next time round, but the tides of fate continually wash Ursula along disallowing the altered state she so craves.
Individual stories culminate in one of the most harrowing parts of this novel. Through Ursula’s work in the War Office the London Blitz is vividly described - the destruction, the damage, the horrific injuries and the loss of life. Ursula could do nothing to prevent the devastation of life around her.
Atkinson explores the fragility of life, the myriad of events that can change one person’s life and the fatalistic reality. The book shuffles from one timeframe to the next and back again. It is an examination of life and death told tenderly by an expert.
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