Born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910, she dies before even taking a breath because the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, the doctor and midwife kept away by the weather.
On the next page, her birth is a very different story - the doctor has managed to get there in time and the baby is saved.
Thus the novel unfolds, with Ursula’s idyllic, Merchant Ivory-style childhood regularly peppered with untimely death. A baby is smothered by a cat, a child slips off a roof, two girls drown playing in the waves, a murderous paedophile roams the countryside and Spanish ‘flu is hard to avoid.
Each time, we are told that darkness falls, and on the next page, the title is Snow. The motif makes it clear to us what is happening, but Ursula herself is only vaguely aware of the experience – a sense of deja vu nagging at her and urging her to make different choices – which don’t necessarily result in better outcomes.
As the novel moves into Ursula’s adult life, the possibilities become more complex, experiences lead to different decisions and it is not just individual deaths that threaten life but entire wars.
In one version of events, Ursula’s travels in Europe before university lead to an acquaintance with Eva
This book embraces a huge cast of characters and is concerned with the big themes of cause and consequence in history – could Hitler have been stopped?
At the same time, it explores the peculiarity of one life, lived. The fact that the life in question is presented as a tree of possibility rather than a linear chain of events describes the unique isolation of an individual perspective.
Life After Life has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and has probably attracted the most attention and acclaim since Atkinson’s first novel, Behind The Scenes At The Museum, burst onto the literary scene, winning the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995.
Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite authors and I always love her writing, but this novel pushed me to uncomfortable places. As mother to a four-year-old and a baby, the heightened sense of vulnerability and danger in the section of the book that covers Ursula’s childhood made me very uneasy!
The later sections are no less challenging in their descriptions of senseless death and destruction. But it is one of those books that permeates long after reading the final page. Decisions and reflections made in real life refer the reader back to the sense of the novel. I suppose you could say that in this sense it has a life after life....