She’s taken it up a notch, was my first (and nearly my last) critical thought, as the pages of Life After Life closed over my head. Kate Atkinson’s previous book, 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, was the fourth to feature her muddled, rueful, violent and wholly sympathetic private eye/justice dispenser Jackson Brodie, and beneath its many enjoyments I (stringent superfan) thought I had detected a certain hastiness or slackening of style. Atkinson is a captivating writer — I once consumed, or was consumed by, three of her novels in as many days, as if the author and I were having a sort of dirty weekend — but here was Started Early, Took My Dog giving me those slight, perhaps unfair, sensations of jaundiced been-here-before-ness…
Not so the enormous and dreamlike Life After Life — although been-here-before-ness is the book’s theme. This is Atkinson fully empowered by her talent and hitting a new level of imaginative exhilaration. There’s a giddy intensity to the book, the thin-air atmosphere of an artistic high. Ursula Todd is born on a winter’s night in England in 1910: born blue, born into death, umbilically strangled. “Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.” The doctor who should have been attending the birth, whose intervention would have saved her, is stuck in a snowdrift somewhere. Baby dies. The End.
Except: not. Time flickers, the universe double-takes, and on the same night Ursula is born again, surviving now thanks to the surgical scissors of the pedantic Dr. Fellowes. (“I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally.”) Four years later, during a summer in Cornwall, Ursula toddles into the sea with her big sister Pamela. Death — in the form of a big wave — snatches her off her feet. “No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky.” Back to the beginning: parturition on a winter’s night, the tiny silver hare dangling from the hood of her pram… When the wave takes her this time, a gentle bystander (happily present on the beach with easel and watercolors) ruins his boots by wading in and scooping her to safety. But four years after that, in November 1918, she is carried off by influenza. “One breath, that was all she needed, but it wouldn’t come.”
Outliving these layered suffocations one by one, starting over and starting over, Ursula begins to retain impressions of her former lives. It’s not Orlando-esque reincarnation, nor is it the black joke of Groundhog Day, but some kind experiment in possibility. In one life a bundling seduction turns into a rape, and then an abortion; in another life the same seducer-rapist is cheerfully rebuffed, leaving no mark on the story. The lethal dose of influenza, meanwhile, was delivered by Bridget, a servant, who picked it up while celebrating the Armistice in London. So, on her next go-around, eight-year-old Ursula contrives to prevent Bridget from going to London at all. How? Why, by pushing her downstairs. Her worried family take her to a psychiatrist, a tolerant, and pipe-chewing New Ager by the name of Dr. Kellet. He tells her about Nietzsche and the ouroboros. But he doesn’t solve the mystery, and nor does Ursula — she simply lives it, with a little more premonitory know-how each time. To the point where, having observed the currents of history as they flow (have flowed, will flow) around her and her family, she comes to the conclusion that it might be quite a good idea to kill Adolf Hitler. There. Now you have to read it.
Ursula is born into Edwardian privilege, her spiral of lives embedded in a world of cooks and groundskeepers and runaway aunts and suitable and unsuitable men and Lawrentian yearnings for farmhands, etc. — all of which means that many readers of Life After Life will unavoidably be experiencing it through the interpretive grid of PBS’s absurd Downton Abbey. This may not be an entirely bad thing: smatteringly and soapily educated by Downton as to the issues facing British society between (and during) the wars, we can here deepen our understanding, courtesy of Atkinson’s gift for historical mood and her eerie deftness at characterization. Hugh Todd, for example, Ursula’s father, is a kind, dutiful and self-effacing Englishman — a complete nonentity, in other words, who nevertheless flares fully into personhood at the tip of Atkinson’s pen. A line here, a look there, a small scene from his marriage: the heart of this long-suffering man seems to irradiate the narrative.
The Atkinson style is a marvel: loose, open, visceral, idiomatic, full of foreshadowings and reverse echoes, and with a steady pulse of poetry. Her plotting may be as zany and compacted as an episode of Doctor Who, but she writes like someone to whom Palgrave’s Golden Treasury has been mother’s milk. Poetry in quotation (Keats, Donne) spangles Life After Life, and from time to time the book actually steps inside a poem — T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land spectrally envelops the text at two points. First, as a 1923-model Ursula and her aunt Izzie encounter a march of unemployed men on Westminster Bridge (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many…”) and then again three years later, as a pregnant Ursula — pregnant with the rapist’s child — contemplates throwing herself into the Thames and drifting “gently on the tide, past Wapping and Rotherhithe and Greenwich and on to Tilbury and out to sea.” (“Down Greenwich Reach past the Isle of Dogs,” croons the bard Eliot, in his mourning song.) I make this point not, I hope, to show that I know my Eliot but to show that Kate Atkinson, popular novelist, is sitting somehow at the wellsprings of the English imagination.