On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can will she?
Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original: this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.
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Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Kate Atkinson
All rights reserved.
Be Ye Men of Valor
A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café. She had come in from the rain and drops of water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women inside. A regiment of white-aproned waiters rushed around at tempo, serving the needs of the Münchner at leisure—coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before—a permed, platinum blonde with heavy makeup—an actress by the look of her. The blond lit a cigarette, making a phallic performance out of it. Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and whole-some, Bavarian preferably. All those dirndls and knee-socks, God help us.
The table was laden. Bienenstich, Gugelhupf, Käsekuchen. He was eating a slice of Kirschtorte. He loved his cakes. No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn't diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed for public view. Not a manly man. He smiled when he caught sight of her and half rose, saying, "Guten Tag, gnädiges Fräulein," indicating the chair next to him. The bootlicker who was currently occupying it jumped up and moved away.
"Unsere Englische Freundin," he said to the blonde, who blew cigarette smoke out slowly and examined her without any interest before eventually saying, "Guten Tag." A Berliner.
She placed her handbag, heavy with its cargo, on the floor next to her chair and ordered Schokolade. He insisted that she try the Pflaumen Streusel.
"Es regnet," she said by way of conversation. "It's raining."
"Yes, it's raining," he said with a heavy accent. He laughed, pleased at his attempt. Everyone else at the table laughed as well. "Bravo," someone said. "Sehr gutes Englisch." He was in a good mood, tapping the back of his index finger against his lips with an amused smile as if he was listening to a tune in his head.
The Streusel was delicious.
"Entschuldigung," she murmured, reaching down into her bag and delving for a handkerchief. Lace corners, monogrammed with her initials, "UBT"—a birthday present from Pammy. She dabbed politely at the Streusel flakes on her lips and then bent down again to put the handkerchief back in her bag and retrieve the weighty object nesting there. Her father's old service revolver from the Great War, a Webley Mark V.
A move rehearsed a hundred times. One shot. Swiftness was all, yet there was a moment, a bubble suspended in time after she had drawn the gun and levelled it at his heart when everything seemed to stop.
"Führer," she said, breaking the spell. "Für Sie."
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
11 February 1910
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
"Dr. Fellowes should have been here," Sylvie moaned. "Why isn't he here yet? Where is he?" Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship's furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.
"Yer man'll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma'am. It's sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed."
Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chasing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truffling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant-major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.
"Oh, ma'am," Bridget cried suddenly, "she's all blue, so she is."
"The cord's wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She's been strangled, the poor wee thing."
"Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?"
"Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma'am, she's gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I'm awful, awful sorry. She'll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I'm awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?"
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
11 February 1910
"For God's sake, girl, stop running around like a headless chicken and fetch some hot water and towels. Do you know nothing? Were you raised in a field?"
"Sorry, sir." Bridget dipped an apologetic curtsy as if Dr. Fellowes were minor royalty.
"A girl, Dr. Fellowes? May I see her?"
"Yes, Mrs. Todd, a bonny, bouncing baby girl." Sylvie thought Dr. Fellowes might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.
"She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally." Dr. Fellowes held up his surgical scissors for Sylvie's admiration. They were small and neat and their sharp points curved upwards at the end. "Snip, snip," he said. Sylvie made a mental note, a small, vague one, given her exhaustion and the circumstances of it, to buy just such a pair of scissors, in case of similar emergency. (Unlikely, it was true.) Or a knife, a good sharp knife to be carried on one's person at all times, like the robber-girl in The Snow Queen.
"You were lucky I got here in time," Dr. Fellowes said. "Before the snow closed the roads. I called for Mrs. Haddock, the midwife, but I believe she is stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter."
"Mrs. Haddock?" Sylvie said and frowned. Bridget laughed out loud and then quickly mumbled, "Sorry, sorry, sir." Sylvie supposed that she and Bridget were both on the edge of hysteria. Hardly surprising.
"Bog Irish," Dr. Fellowes muttered.
"Bridget's only a scullery maid, a child herself. I am very grateful to her. It all happened so quickly." Sylvie thought how much she wanted to be alone, how she was never alone. "You must stay until morning, I suppose, doctor," she said reluctantly.
"Well, yes, I suppose I must," Dr. Fellowes said, equally reluctantly.
Sylvie sighed and suggested that he help himself to a glass of brandy in the kitchen. And perhaps some ham and pickles. "Bridget will see to you." She wanted rid of him. He had delivered all three (three!) of her children and she did not like him one bit. Only a husband should see what he saw. Pawing and poking with his instruments in her most delicate and secretive places. (But would she rather have a midwife called Mrs. Haddock deliver her child?) Doctors for women should all be women themselves. Little chance of that.
Dr. Fellowes lingered, humming and hawing, overseeing the washing and wrapping of the new arrival by a hot-faced Bridget. Bridget was the eldest of seven so she knew how to swaddle an infant. She was fourteen years old, ten years younger than Sylvie. When Sylvie was fourteen she was still in short skirts, in love with her pony, Tiffin. Had no idea where babies came from, even on her wedding night she remained baffled. Her mother, Lottie, had hinted but had fallen shy of anatomical exactitude. Conjugal relations between man and wife seemed, mysteriously, to involve larks soaring at daybreak. Lottie was a reserved woman. Some might have said narcoleptic. Her husband, Sylvie's father, Llewellyn Beresford, was a famous society artist but not at all Bohemian. No nudity or louche behavior in his household. He had painted Queen Alexandra, when she was still a princess. Said she was very pleasant.
They lived in a good house in Mayfair, while Tiffin was stabled in a mews near Hyde Park. In darker moments, Sylvie was wont to cheer herself up by imagining that she was back there in the sunny past, sitting neatly in her side-saddle on Tiffin's broad little back, trotting along Rotten Row on a clean spring morning, the blossom bright on the trees.
"How about some hot tea and a nice bit of buttered toast, Mrs. Todd?" Bridget said.
"That would be lovely, Bridget."
The baby, bandaged like a Pharaonic mummy, was finally passed to Sylvie. Softly, she stroked the peachy cheek and said, "Hello, little one," and Dr. Fellowes turned away so as not to be a witness to such syrupy demonstrations of affection. He would have all children brought up in a new Sparta if it were up to him.
"Well perhaps a little cold collation wouldn't go amiss," he said. "Is there, by chance, any of Mrs. Glover's excellent piccalilli?"
Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year
11 February 1910
Sylvie was woken by a dazzling sliver of sunlight piercing the curtains like a shining silver sword. She lay languidly in lace and cashmere as Mrs. Glover came into the room, proudly bearing a huge breakfast tray. Only an occasion of some importance seemed capable of drawing Mrs. Glover this far out of her lair. A single, half-frozen snowdrop drooped in the bud vase on the tray. "Oh, a snowdrop!" Sylvie said. "The first flower to raise its poor head above the ground. How brave it is!"
Mrs. Glover, who did not believe that flowers were capable of courage, or indeed any other character trait, laudable or otherwise, was a widow who had only been with them at Fox Corner a few weeks. Before her advent there had been a woman called Mary who slouched a great deal and burned the roasts. Mrs. Glover tended, if anything, to undercook food. In the prosperous household of Sylvie's childhood, Cook was called "Cook" but Mrs. Glover preferred "Mrs. Glover." It made her irreplaceable. Sylvie still stubbornly thought of her as Cook.
"Thank you, Cook." Mrs. Glover blinked slowly like a lizard. "Mrs. Glover," Sylvie corrected herself.
Mrs. Glover set the tray down on the bed and opened the curtains. The light was extraordinary, the black bat vanquished.
"So bright," Sylvie said, shielding her eyes.
"So much snow," Mrs. Glover said, shaking her head in what could have been wonder or aversion. It was not always easy to tell with Mrs. Glover.
"Where is Dr. Fellowes?" Sylvie asked.
"There was an emergency. A farmer trampled by a bull."
"Some men came from the village and tried to dig his automobile out but in the end my George came and gave him a ride."
"Ah," Sylvie said, as if suddenly understanding something that had puzzled her.
"And they call it horsepower," Mrs. Glover snorted, bull-like herself. "That's what comes of relying on new-fangled machines."
"Mm," Sylvie said, reluctant to argue with such strongly held views. She was surprised that Dr. Fellowes had left without examining either herself or the baby.
"He looked in on you. You were asleep," Mrs. Glover said. Sylvie sometimes wondered if Mrs. Glover was a mind-reader. A perfectly horrible thought.
"He ate his breakfast first," Mrs. Glover said, displaying both approval and disapproval in the same breath. "The man has an appetite, that's for sure."
"I could eat a horse," Sylvie laughed. She couldn't, of course. Tiffin popped briefly into her mind. She picked up the silver cutlery, heavy like weapons, ready to tackle Mrs. Glover's devilled kidneys. "Lovely," she said (were they?) but Mrs. Glover was already busy inspecting the baby in the cradle. ("Plump as a suckling pig.") Sylvie idly wondered if Mrs. Haddock was still stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter.
"I hear the baby nearly died," Mrs. Glover said.
"Well ..." Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying. Her own father, the society portraitist, slipped on an Isfahan rug on a first-floor landing after some fine cognac one evening. The next morning he was discovered dead at the foot of the stairs. No one had heard him fall or cry out. He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously.
Afterward it turned out that he had been more profligate with his money than mother and daughter realized. A secret gambler, markers all over town. He had made no provision at all for unexpected death and soon there were creditors crawling over the nice house in Mayfair. A house of cards as it turned out. Tiffin had to go. Broke Sylvie's heart, the grief greater than any she felt for her father.
"I thought his only vice was women," her mother said, roosting temporarily on a packing case as if modeling for a pietà.
They sank into genteel and well-mannered poverty. Sylvie's mother grew pale and uninteresting, larks soared no more for her as she faded, consumed by consumption. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie was rescued from becoming an artist's model by a man she met at the post-office counter. Hugh. A rising star in the prosperous world of banking. The epitome of bourgeois respectability. What more could a beautiful but penniless girl hope for?
Lottie died with less fuss than was expected and Hugh and Sylvie married quietly on Sylvie's eighteenth birthday. ("There," Hugh said, "now you will never forget the anniversary of our marriage.") They spent their honeymoon in France, a delightful quinzaine in Deauville before settling in semi-rural bliss near Beaconsfield in a house that was vaguely Lutyens in style. It had everything one could ask for—a large kitchen, a drawing room with French windows on to the lawn, a pretty morning room and several bedrooms waiting to be filled with children. There was even a little room at the back of the house for Hugh to use as a study. "Ah, my growlery," he laughed.
It was surrounded at a discreet distance by similar houses. There was a meadow and a copse and a bluebell wood beyond with a stream running through it. The train station, no more than a halt, would allow Hugh to be at his banker's desk in less than an hour.
"Sleepy hollow," Hugh laughed as he gallantly carried Sylvie across the threshold. It was a relatively modest dwelling (nothing like Mayfair) but nonetheless a little beyond their means, a fiscal recklessness that surprised them both.
"We should give the house a name," Hugh said. "The Laurels, the Pines, the Elms."
"But we have none of those in the garden," Sylvie pointed out. They were standing at the French windows of the newly purchased house, looking at a swathe of overgrown lawn. "We must get a gardener," Hugh said. The house itself was echoingly empty. They had not yet begun to fill it with the Voysey rugs and Morris fabrics and all the other aesthetic comforts of a twentieth-century house. Sylvie would have quite happily lived in Liberty's rather than the as- yet-to-be-named marital home.
"Greenacres, Fairview, Sunnymead?" Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.
The previous owner of their unnamed house had sold up and gone to live in Italy. "Imagine," Sylvie said dreamily. She had been to Italy when she was younger, a grand tour with her father while her mother went to Eastbourne for her lungs.
"Full of Italians," Hugh said dismissively.
"Quite. That's rather the attraction," Sylvie said, unwinding herself from his arm.
"The Gables, the Homestead?"
"Do stop," Sylvie said.
A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. "Oh, look," Sylvie said. "How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied."
"Let's hope the local hunt isn't following on its heels," Hugh said. "It's a scrawny beast."
"It's a vixen. She's a nursing mother, you can see her teats."
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
"Look," Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out onto the grass and tumbled over each other in play. "Oh, they're such handsome little creatures!"
"Some might say vermin."
"Perhaps they see us as verminous," Sylvie said. "Fox Corner—that's what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn't that be the point?"
Excerpted from Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Copyright © 2014 Kate Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Life After Life is a masterpiece about how even the smallest choices can sometimes change the course of history. It's wise, bittersweet, funny, and unlike anything else you've ever read. Kate Atkinson is one of my all-time favorite novelists, and I believe this is her best book yet. - J. Courtney Sullivan, bestselling author of Maine and Commencement
Kate Atkinson is a marvel. There aren't enough breathless adjectives to describe Life After Life: Dazzling, witty, moving, joyful, mournful, profound. Wildly inventive, deeply felt. Hilarious. Humane. Simply put: It's one of the best novels I've read this century. - Gillian Flynn, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller GONE GIRL
Kate Atkinson's new novel is a box of delights. Ingenious in construction, indefatigably entertaining, it grips the reader's imagination on the first page and never lets go. If you wish to be moved and astonished, read it. And if you want to give a dazzling present, buy it for your friends. - Hilary Mantel, author of WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES
Reading Group Guide
1. Ursula Todd gets to live out many different realities, something that's impossible in real life. Though there is an array of possibilities that form Ursula's alternate histories, do you think any and all futures are possible in Ursula's world, or are there certain parameters within which each life is lived?
2. As time goes on, Ursula learns more about her ability to restart her lifeand she often changes course accordingly, but she doesn't always correct things. Why not? Do you think Ursula ever becomes completely conscious of her ability to relive and redo her lives? If so, at what point in the story do you think that happens? And what purpose do you think she sets for herself once she figures it out?
3. Do people's choices have the power to change destiny? How do you think Ursula's choices are either at odds with or in line with the ideas of fate and destiny throughout the story?
4. Do you think Ursula's ability to relive her life over and over is a gift or a curse? How do you think Ursula looks at it? Do you think she is able to embrace the philosophy amor fati ("love of fate," "acceptance") in the end?
5. Small moments often have huge ramifications in Ursula's life. Do you think certain moments are more crucial than others in the way Ursula's life develops? Why, and which moments?
6. LIFE AFTER LIFE encapsulates both the big picture (the sweep of major global historical events) and the small picture (the dynamics of Ursula's loving, quirky family). How are these pictures tied together? When do Ursula's decisions affect the big picture more, or the small picture more? When do they affect both?
7. How does Atkinson portray gender throughout the story? How does she comment on the gender roles of this time period, and which characters challenge those rolesand how?
8. How does Atkinson's humor pepper the story? In what ways is she able to bring a bit of comedy to her characters and their stories as relief from the serious and dark subject matter?
9. How do the various relationships within the Todd family shape the story? What is the significance of maternal bonds and sibling bonds in the story?
10. How does Atkinson capture the terror and tragedy of the Blitz? How does war become its own character in the book? What type of commentary does Atkinson make on the English approach to war? Why do you think Atkinson portrayed one of Ursula's lives in Germany, experiencing war and the bombing from the opposing side?
11. On page 379, Ursula faces a bleak end in Germany with her daughter, Frieda. She chooses death over life for the first time, saying, "Something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed." What do you think she means by that? Is this a significant turning point to Ursula's story? Do you think the end of this life affects her decisions in other lives that follow?
12. On page 354, Klara says, "Hindsight's a wonderful thing. If we all had it there would be no history to write about." Do you think this is true? In what ways does the use of hindsight come to pass in the book?
13. "'Well, we all get on,' Sylvie said, 'one way or another. And in the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.' It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point..." (page 252). Do you agree with Sylvie or with Ursula? How does this relate to a philosophy raised by Dr. Kelletthat "sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening" (page 160)?
14. Along similar lines, Ursula says to Teddy on page 446, "You just have to get on with life....We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try." And Teddy responds, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right?" What do you think it means to get things right? Is Ursula attempting to make things "right" in life each time she's reborn? If so, which things in particularand how?
15. On page 277, Ralph asks Ursula if she could have killed Hitler as a baby, and Ursula thinks, "If I thought it would save Teddy.... Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too." Do you think Ursula ultimately had to choose between saving Teddy and saving "the rest of the world"? If so, why did she choose as she did? And was she able to save either?
16. Life continues to restart over and over for Ursula and the Todd family, and outcomes vary greatly each time. What happens to the characters changes drastically in many of the versions. Do you feel the characters change just as drastically, in terms of who they are and what they are like? Or do you think they fundamentally stay the same? Ursula learns many things about life and its progression, but does she herself change over the course of the book?
17. What are the biggest questions this book raised for you? How did it change the way you think about the course of your own life?