BOOK CLU B
Sophia McDougall goes back in time with an award- winning novel
Sophia McDougall on Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.
A young woman walks into an Austrian cafe, where a veteran of the Great War and leader of a rising political party is eating cake. “Fuhrer, fur sie,” she greets him – before shooting Hitler in the heart. It’s 1930.
Kate Atkinson’s novels have nudged the margins of SFF before. Ruby, narrator and heroine of Behind The Scenes At The Museum, is conscious for her own conception and displays an impossible omniscience about her family’s history. Isobel, of Human Croquet, keeps slipping into the past, and even the characters of the Jackson Brodie novels occasionally seem gifted with mild telepathy. But these touches of the fantastic always remained on the level of atmospheric conceit rather than penetrating into the narrative itself.
In Life After Life, with that bullet to Hitler’s heart, Atkinson boldly and emphatically goes there. Any doubts that we’re looking at real time travel vanish as her heroine, Ursula, born over and over again on an endlessly repeating winter day in 1910, begins to remember her past lives and shape her choices accordingly, striving like Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett “to set right what once went wrong”. The result is a palimpsest of personal and global alternate histories, overwriting each other through an individual life. It is a great compliment to SFF that Atkinson’s contribution to it is her masterpiece; exploring and extending the capacities of the genre with the confidence of a writer at the height of her powers. Life After Life rises to meet the limitlessness of its premise, departing from reality only in order to witness it more fully. Atkinson’s rather surprising answer to the question of what the novel is “really about” is, in her author’s note “being English”, and Ursula does live through some of England’s most cherished modern mythology about itself, from the sunny daydream of tea on the pre- 1914 lawn to the heroism and heartbreak of the Blitz, as well as the snobbery and hypocrisy, misogyny and violence that exist alongside them.
But Life After Life encompasses so much more than Englishness. “We are all intrigued by ‘ What If ’ scenarios,” Atkinson writes, recounting how the novel evolved from the idea of Hitler being kidnapped as a baby by a time traveller. But the most compelling “what if ” s contain perhaps equal measures of excitement and horror. Ursula has an infinitude of chances to “get it right” – and no escape from the limitlessness of all that can go wrong. Sometimes this becomes darkly comic: the child Ursula dies so frequently from Spanish Flu that even the narrative seems exasperated (“Darkness, and so on”) and Ursula is driven to outlandish lengths to save her own life, like a frustrated gamer trying to do a difficult level.
Atkinson’s trademark playfulness brings necessary light to a vision that is ultimately tragic, even terrifying. Life After Life is at once a lament for the waste of the 20th century and a study of the incalculable weight of tiny decisions; the speed and ease with which a life can be ruined. This is perhaps most glaring during the Blitz section – life or death hanging on an impulsive run after a dog, on whether or not to buy a particular dress – but it was the life dominated by the consequences of a trauma in Ursula’s teenage years that I found most heartbreaking. Ursula’s triumphs are in the end almost more poignant than her many deaths: through her fantastic ability always to try again, to do better, the novel shines a sombre light on time endlessly falling beyond rescue.
Sophia McDougall is the author of the Mars Evacuees series and Romanitas trilogy.