Sophia McDougall goes back in time with an award- win­ning novel

SFX - - Contents - By Kate Atkin­son, 2013

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.

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