One of the few advantages of getting older is that you are granted some perspective on your life. You can look back and see the decision points, the places where you chose one road rather than another- or even made no choice at all ( which is, itself, a choice.) You can wonder what would have happened if…you hadn’t caught that bus, hadn’t gone on that holiday…If you had a second chance, would you have chosen differently ?
This idea of alternative futures is at the heart of “ Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson ( pub Doubleday.) At first glance it is a traditional English Family Novel, tracking the Todds from 1910, through the 30’s and World War 2 and into the early sixties. They start off as a typical Edwardian middle class family. Hugh is a banker, Sylvie,his wife, is mother to Maurice, Pamela, Ursula, Teddy and Jimmy, as well as supervising Bridget the maid ,and Mrs Glover the cook. Only Hugh’s wayward sister, Izzie, goes against the grain of traditional English respectability. At the start of the novel she is pregnant, and has just left her lover.
The central character of the novel is Ursula.She is born during a snowstorm and dies. And then she’s born again…only this time she stays alive…get the idea ? As she grows up, Ursula becomes vaguely aware that her life has more than one dimension. She is drowned in a seaside accident, and then she is rescued; She is raped on her sixteenth birthday by a friend of her brothers, becomes a secretary, and marries a violent husband- and then the rape never happened- the boy only gave her a kiss after all.
The core of the book is devoted to the Blitz in London in 1940-41. Ursula is a member of of a rescue team, pulling survivors- and corpses- from bombed out buildings. The period detail- the smells- the attitudes are spot on throughout the book- but are particularly vivid here . Bit by bit, Ursula’s middle class prejudices and ideals are stripped away. She becomes, as we all do, the sum of our pasts.
This is not a quick read- you need ( no- you want) to take it slowly. It’s massively engaging on all sorts of levels. The best novel I’ve read so far this year.